Romancing the River: The #ColoradoRiver Compact at 100 — Sibley’s Rivers #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the article the Sibley’s Rivers website [http://sibleysrivers.com] (George Sibley):

We’ve been exploring the Colorado River Compact here – which, like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ ‘wonderful one-hoss shay’ has now lived almost ‘one hundred years to the day’ – the commissioners signed off on it November 24, 1922.  The century mark is a good place to pause and pull back for a larger perspective on something like a multi-state agreement and see what it has and hasn’t actually accomplished – but without losing sight of the romantic vision of conquest that drove the Compact’s formation, back in the early decades of the Anthropocene Epoch when reorganizing the prehuman world was still fun.

In the last post here, we looked at the ‘major purposes’ cited in the first article of the Compact: the first listed purpose, ‘to provide for the equitable division and apportionment of the use of the waters of the Colorado River System’ in order ‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’ (fourth purpose); and the final listed purpose, ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin.’

That fifth purpose, to facilitate the expeditious development of the Basin, was the main reason the seven state representatives had convened with a federal representative: they all wanted to get about the development of the river’s waters, the desire to take on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon’ supported by rational reasons such as flood control and storage. In order to achieve that expeditious development, however, it was necessary to achieve the Compact’s first stated purpose: an equitable division and apportionment of the development and the water required – or cutting to the chase for most of the seven states: making sure that fast-growing Southern California did not get most of the water for its racehorse development. 

After failed efforts to make specific seven-state divisions of the use of the River’s water, the expedient solution they settled on was to divide the river in two, around the mostly uninhabited canyon region: an Upper Basin including the four states above the canyons (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming), and a Lower Basin of the states below the canyons (Arizona, California and Nevada). It was their clear intent that each basin would get half of the river’s water for consumptive use, with the states in each basin working out an equitable division among themselves of their half, in their own good time. 

It may have worked out better, had they stopped there – a 50-50 division of whatever water the river produced, with each basin responsible for half of whatever water might eventually by allotted to Mexico where the river ended. But California insisted on a specific quantification of the two shares because they were already using a substantial amount and didn’t want to over-appropriate. After much discussion and good and bad advice, the commissioners settled on 15 million acre-feet (maf) as a reasonable average flow, between the Bureau of Reclamation’s optimistic 16.5 maf and the less optimistic 13 maf of USGS scientists studying the river.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

The commissioners have been chided – castigated – for settling on the 15 maf quantity, which was shown to be overly optimistic within a couple of decades. But they could have countered the criticism by asking why, if their numbers were so bad, had the states not reassembled to correct them? 

Frequently in their meetings, there was either frustration or resignation at how little they knew about the river and its flow history. Chairman Hoover summarized that oft-expressed concern in their 21st meeting: ‘[W]e make now, for lack of a better word, a temporary equitable division, reserving a certain portion of the flow of the river to the hands of those men who may come after us, possessed of a far greater fund of information; that they can make a further division of the river at such a time, and in the meantime, we shall take such means at this moment to protect the rights of either basin as will assure the continued development of the river.’ (Italics added) In other words – we can work out the details down the road when we know more; meanwhile, let’s build dams and canals. They built into the Compact, in Articles III, VI, and IX, procedures for those ‘possessed of a far greater fund of information’ to reconsider the Compact to better fit the emerging reality of the River and its flows. 

I should note that the commissioners, Anthropocene romantics, actually believed that future generations would reassemble to address the distribution of surplus flows. They anticipated a larger river in the future – if not provided by nature, then by the engineers who would bring in more water from larger rivers that had a surplus. This is the ‘romance of the Colorado River’ – the romance of the Anthropocene. 

California’s commissioner McClure accepted the lower 7.5 maf/year figure because it moved along the process leading to stymying the veritable dragon with a big dam for storage of the river’s annual flood. But Arizona’s commissioner, W.S. Norviel, was not happy with any aspect of the two-basin division since it left Arizona competing with California for a diminished quantity of water, a mere half of the river, for which the bigger state already had plans in the process. He was essentially – on orders from economic forces in the state he represented – in a defensive posture, protecting Arizona’s right and capacity to become another California with no interference from the Upper Basin states. Most of the commissioners were patient with Norviel, but frustration was occasionally vented, as when the New Mexico commissioner observed that ‘we are absolutely and utterly up in the air because none of us knows what it is Mr. Norviel really wants.’

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

What it came down to – what satisfied Mr. Norviel enough to reluctantly sign the Compact – was the concession by the Upper States that Arizona’s tributaries to the Colorado River mainstem would not be counted as part of the Lower Basin’s 7.5 maf/year. This is obscurely codified in the Compact as the mysterious statement in Article 3(b): ‘In addition to the [7.5 maf] apportionment, the Lower Basin is hereby given the right to increase its beneficial consumptive use of such waters by one million acre-feet per annum’ (with no additional responsibility for that accruing to the Upper Basin).

No rationale for this ‘gift’ is to be found in the minutes of the meetings, but it would be naive to think that everything of importance happened in the formal transcribed meetings. Bishop’s Lodge had a comped bar and restaurant, and there were undoubtedly informal meetings, over breakfast and lunch and well into the evenings, and in hotel-room Basin caucuses, as well as phone exchanges with interested parties back home.

The Compact that the seven commissioners signed in late November 1922 might have raised as many questions as it answered for the states and the nation. That unexplained million acre-feet is one such instance. But the big one was, and continues to be – what did the commissioners mean when they said, in Article III(d): ‘The States of the Upper Division will not cause the flow of the river at Lee Ferry to be depleted below an aggregate of 75,000,000 acre-feet for any period of ten consecutive years.”

Does this mean – well, what it seems to say: that the users in the Upper Basin states should do nothing themselves, in the way of consumptive uses, to deplete the flow at Lees Ferry below the 7.5 maf/year average? Or does it mean that the Upper Basin has a ‘delivery obligation’ to the Lower Basin regardless of what happened naturally (drought) as well as culturally (over-use) in the Upper Basin? 

This map shows the Colorado River Basin and surrounding areas that use Colorado River Water, with four regions delineated, based on the degree to which flow is regulated and the channel physically manipulated. The dividing line for the upper and lower basin is Lee Ferry near Glen Canyon Dam. CREDIT: CENTER FOR COLORADO RIVER STUDIES

That particular question has remained unanswered because there has been no need to raise the question – yet. The Upper Basin is now consuming only around 4 maf/per year, with nearly all of its good agricultural land watered. Colorado commissioner Carpenter had opined early in the meetings that even at full development the Upper Basin states would still be passing more than half the river to the Lower Basin; that seems prescient in retrospect.

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

Upper Basin depletions today also include two-thirds of a million ace-feet in out-of-basin diversions to the South Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande rivers and the Salt Lake region. Such diversions could conceivably be a black hole into which another million or two acre-feet could be poured, but users in the natural Upper Basin are organized enough now to put very expensive conditions on future out-of-basin diversions – as Denver Water and Northern Water have learned, on ‘firming projects’ for two relatively small diversions into the South Platte for which they already had conditional rights.  The Upper Basin states assumed the worst – an unconditional delivery obligation – and have been almost obsessively diligent about keeping the ten-year running average well above 75 maf. Even today, through two decades of aridification, the ten-year average remains in the 85-90 maf range, although the long-term trend in the running average is downward, bringing closer the day when that big question must be answered…

The mysterious or obfuscatory passages of the Compact to one side, however – a larger question, for me at least, is whether the division of the Colorado River into two basins was a good idea for the long term. 

As Utah’s commissioner Caldwell observed in the next to last meeting, ‘I think for a practical matter we are almost making two rivers out of one in the Colorado River, to meet a practical situation.’ The ‘practical situation’ was the need for an interstate agreement on the consumptive use of the River’s water ‘to secure the expeditious agricultural and industrial development of the Colorado River Basin,’ and the two-basin concept achieved that. 

But the effect over the century has been ‘almost making two rivers out of one,’ rather than developing one river with two basins. The Upper Colorado River is a ‘natural’ river, accumulating its flows from many mountain tributaries that almost all start with snowmelt above 8,000 feet in elevation and gradually conjoin to funnel into the canyon region. The Lower Colorado River is practically a reverse of that, with a single source emerging from the canyon reservoirs and gradually being diverted into canals and smaller ditches and pipes until it has been literally all spread out in southwestern desert destinations.

The clear intent of the Compact commissioners was that these two rivers would be created equal (‘to remove causes of present and future controversies’), but they failed to deliver that in the language of the Compact. Despite some wiggle room provided by the ten-year running average, the Upper Basin was clearly going to bear most of the burden of nature’s extremes like drought, while the Lower Basin was assured under the Compact of a relatively consistent flow of water from storage regardless of what happened in the Upper Basin.

The separation into ‘two rivers’ was enhanced with the construction of Glen Canyon Dam and Powell Reservoir just above Lees Ferry the basin division point; there was no further need for the Lower River to be concerned at all with the occasional dry spell in the Upper River; their portion plus the Upper River’s share of Mexico’s portion (8.23 maf/year) was always there – plus the unused Upper River ‘surplus’ which the Bureau kept sending them, enabling all manner of bad habits in the Lower River.

The problem with ‘making two rivers from’ the Colorado River is a failure to take into account the basic nature of a ‘desert river.’ Around 85 percent of the water for the entire Colorado River Basin originates in the Upper River above 8,000 feet elevation. And around 65 percent of that water is consumed by the Lower River (whose water ‘originates’ in the bubbling ‘spring’ of spent water from Glen Canyon Dam’s power turbines). Yet the Lower River is charged with no responsibility for maintaining and improving the source of its water. The back-and-forth fussing and complaining today between the two basins is evidence of a two-river split, in which the problems of flow lie mostly in the Upper River, and means for addressing those problems ($$$) are mostly untapped in the Lower River’s users.

The Compact commissioners undoubtedly did the best they could with the knowledge they had – and the romantic vision they tried to carry forward in more rational terms: they were primarily out to get about the task of unleashing the Industrial Revolution on Frederick Dellenbaugh’s ‘veritable dragon.’ But their own words in the transcriptions, as well as the ‘reform’ clauses in the Compact itself, indicate that they intended for the Compact to be a ‘living document,’ changing as we learned more about the river. 

Why have the Compact’s critics not delved into the document’s weak points and unforeseeable challenges? Some elements of the so-called ‘Law of the River’ – which we’ll explore soon – have attempted to either chip away at the challenges, or to circumvent them. But the tasks of correcting the arithmetic and addressing the two-river questions can no longer be kicked down the road – like Holmes’ one-hoss shay, the Compact could fall apart at a hundred years to a day.

Republished with permission.

#California #water agencies strike an agreement to conserve some #ColoradoRiver supply — KUNC #COriver #aridification

Southern California water agencies have agreed on a deal to cut back on the amount of water they use for the Colorado River, some of which is used to grow crops in the Imperial Valley. Ted Wood/The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Alex Hager). Here’s an excerpt:

Water agencies in southern California announced a new agreement to voluntarily cut back on their total water from the Colorado River use by 9%. The deal is a rare instance of collaboration between water departments representing cities and farms, and comes amid federal pressure to conserve water in the face of historic drought…California’s contribution represents the first public commitment to conserve a specific volume of water among the Colorado River’s basin states since the mid-August deadline passed…The new plan from California proposes a 400,000 acre-foot reduction in water use each year, beginning in 2023 and lasting through 2026. The agencies involved – Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Imperial Irrigation District, Coachella Valley Water District and Palo Verde Irrigation District – said it’s an effort to help boost low levels in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir…

Map of the Salton Sea drainage area. By Shannon – Background and river course data from http://www2.demis.nl/mapserver/mapper.asp and some topography from http://seamless.usgs.gov/website/seamless/viewer.htm, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9707481

The California agencies said they will only take voluntary cutbacks if the federal government provides “funding and commitments on the Salton Sea.” The lake is kept full by irrigation runoff from neighboring agricultural areas. As farmers conserve more water in the Imperial and Coachella valleys, the lake declines causing public health and ecological crises for that valley. Its future has been at the heart of fractious debates in California about its use of Colorado River water.

The All American Canal diverts water from the Lower Colorado River to irrigate crops in California’s Imperial Valley and supply 9 cities. Graphic credit: USGS

Click the link to read “California agencies float Colorado River water cuts proposal” on the Associated Press website (Kathleen Ronayne). Here’s an excerpt:

The agencies, which supply water to farmers and millions of people in Southern California, laid out their proposal in a letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior. It comes as drought exacerbated by climate change continues to diminish the river, and months after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation first called on users to voluntarily limit their reliance on it. California shares the river’s water with six other states, tribes and Mexico. It has rights to the single largest share and is the last to lose water in times of shortage…California has been under pressure from other states to figure out how to use less as river reservoirs drop so low they risk losing the ability to generate hydropower and deliver water…

Four California agencies use the river’s water: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Imperial Irrigation District, the Palo Verde Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District. The proposed cuts are contingent on the water agencies getting money from the $4 billion in drought relief included in the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as a commitment by the federal government to help clean up the Salton Sea, a drying lake fed by diminishing runoff from Imperial Valley farms. The letter was scant on details. The agencies said they have “a collection of proposed water conservation and water use reduction opportunities” that would help keep more water in Lake Mead, one of the river’s key reservoirs…It did not list any specific projects, or specify the rate of payment the agencies are expecting. But the federal government has previously said the $4 billion could be used for short-term conservation measures, like paying farmers to leave their fields unplanted, and long-term efficiency projects such as lining canals to prevent water loss.

The Imperial Irrigation District receives a larger share of the river than any other entity. It’s the only source of water for crops in California’s southeastern desert, where many of the nation’s winter vegetables, like broccoli, as well as feed crops like alfalfa are grown.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Flaming Gorge drawdown threatens local fishing, recreation economy — WyoFile #GreenRiver #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez stands next to a stake that indicates the extent of lowering water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Click the link to read the article on the WyoFile website (Dustin Bleizeffer):

The shoreline of this large reservoir on the Wyoming-Utah border has steadily receded this summer as the Bureau of Reclamation pumped more water out to help maintain critical water levels 500 miles away at Lake Powell.

The water shrunk from boat ramps and forced marinas to scoot docks ever inward. By September, 6 feet of vertical drop in the water level translated into vast areas of exposed lakebed, leaving many boat ramps on the northern reaches of the reservoir high and dry. All told, the reservoir’s elevation is about 12 feet lower today than two years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Thousands of acres that had been underwater for 58 years now comprise a rainbow of boggy sediment, grasses and invasive plants.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez and his staff scrambled all summer to keep boat docks in the water, but they couldn’t always keep up. Two large floating docks near a drop-off sank so low that their access ramps became too steep to safely walk. Toxic cyanobacterial blooms have also migrated further down the lake.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observes toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“I can’t take my grandkids or my dogs to the water,” Valdez said, motioning to big green globs and sheets of muck as he stood on a boat dock. “We’re losing our marina. It will be gone after next year.”

When Valdez bought the marina in 2019, he immediately began making renovations. It was a solid investment, he believed, for a popular service at the largest recreational draw in southwest Wyoming. 

The BOR had maintained seasonably stable water levels at Flaming Gorge since 1964 when the dam was completed. Businesses in Wyoming and Utah built an economy around the fishermen, boaters, bird-watchers and others drawn to the massive impoundment.

Things began to change, however. Valdez first noticed that vehicles and boat trailers with plates from California, Arizona and other southwestern states became increasingly prevalent at the marina, he said, as reservoirs along the Colorado River began drying up.

Campers, seen here Sept. 26, 2022, are set up in areas previously under water across the bay from the Buckboard Marina at Flaming Gorge Reservoir. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

More than 20 years of drought — intensified by human-caused climate change — have pushed the Colorado River Basin and the 40 million people who depend on it into a water crisis. The system’s two largest reservoirs, Powell and Lake Mead, sank below 30% capacity this summer — the lowest levels since they were constructed. If the situation worsens, Powell and Mead could reach “deadpool” status at which the reservoirs would no longer release water downstream into the Colorado River.

The crisis is traveling upstream to places like Flaming Gorge, where it has implications for everything from riparian ecosystems to economic livelihoods. Currently, Flaming Gorge is at about 74% storage capacity, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Whether the reservoir shrinks further depends on whether the BOR will continue to tap Flaming Gorge and how quickly it might be naturally replenished.

Lower Green River Lake

Emergency water supply

In a legal sense, Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which is fed by headwaters in western Wyoming, was created for a moment like this. Its primary purpose, according to federal officials and Colorado River Compact scholars, is to serve as a backup water bank to help maintain the Colorado River system. Specifically, Flaming Gorge and a handful of other reservoirs in the upper Colorado River Basin states of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico are key to ensuring a minimum flow of 7.5 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry just downstream of Powell on a running 10-year average.

So far, the upper basin states have met the threshold. Nonetheless, when Powell and Mead saw drastic lows in 2021, the BOR drew an extra 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge. This past spring when the situation in the lower basin states became even more dire, the BOR initiated a draw of an additional 500,000 acre-feet, estimating a 15-foot vertical drop in the reservoir over the water season ending in April 2023.

The Drought Response Operations Agreement, signed by Colorado River Compact stakeholders in 2019, authorizes the BOR to make those, and possibly additional emergency draws from Flaming Gorge, to help maintain critical water levels and hydropower generation at Powell and Mead. If this summer is any indication, continual draws from the reservoir might drastically alter an aquatic ecosystem and fishery that local businesses have relied on for decades.

Map credit: AGU

“This has been held at a premium, high-water mark, recreational lake for [58] years,” Valedz said. “Why wasn’t this addressed 15 years ago if we knew this was coming?”

The BOR is expected to decide whether to implement another “extra” draw from Flaming Gorge in April 2023.

Flaming Gorge fishery

Kokanee salmon and trophy-sized lake trout draw tens of thousands of visitors to Flaming Gorge each year, supporting a recreational economy in southwest Wyoming and northeast Utah. But as the lake is drawn down, water recedes from shallow shorelines and fish are forced into a smaller space, essentially shrinking the fishery toward the dam side of the reservoir.

Fishing guides and Wyoming Game and Fish have cooperated to maintain an appropriate balance to the predator-prey relationship between lake trout and kokanee, according to Recon Angling owner Shane DuBois. Now, the decreasing water levels threaten to drastically alter that balance and may require shifting management strategies. 

Recon Angling owner Shane Dubois (left) and Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez observe water levels at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Kokanee spawning beds have been exposed, which will force the fish to spawn in areas covered in silt, reducing the reproduction success rate, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Fisheries Supervisor Robert Keith. If Flaming Gorge’s normal water levels are restored, the episode will likely improve traditional spawning beds, Keith said. However, if BOR withdrawals from Flaming Gorge substantially outpace natural inflows for several more years, the fishery will suffer.

“That’s going to be an economic impact to communities around the reservoir that depend on the anglers showing up,” Keith said. “And If we don’t have any ramps in Wyoming that anglers can launch from, then they’re all going to launch further down the reservoir and those dollars are going to be spent down in Utah.”

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms at Flaming Gorge Reservoir Sept. 26, 2022. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The BOR is in consultation with the Wyoming State Engineer’s office and local recreation and fishery managers regarding drawdowns at Flaming Gorge. The Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area — managed by the U.S. Forest Service — as well as Wyoming Game and Fish, can apply for federal funds set aside to aid in the Colorado River Basin water crisis. But maintaining critical water levels at Powell and Mead remains a priority, while projects involving reconstructing boat ramps and shifting fishery management would take years.

For DuBois, who depends on both a healthy fishery at Flaming Gorge and functional boat ramps, the situation threatens his livelihood. He recently invested tens of thousands of dollars in a new fishing boat and hopes it pays off.

“How does the Bureau of Reclamation not know [the recent drawdown] would leave most boat ramps unusable?” DuBois asked.

As he continues to relocate and reconstruct boat docks to adjust to lower water levels, Valdez is considering how to expand his scope of clientele to make up for losses. 

“I didn’t buy this place to come up here and watch this go to shit,” Valdez said.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

Why is the Colorado River in crisis, and what is being done about it?: Pressing questions to an urgent problem asked and explained — Audubon

American White Pelican and Double-crested Cormorants at Bill Williams Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. Photo: Gary Moore/Audubon Photography Awards

Click the link to read the article on the Audubon website (Haley Paul):

**Este artículo se puede encontrar en español**

Q: Why are we in this situation, with the Colorado River and its reservoirs shrinking so quickly?

A: Truth is, we saw this coming. We use more water than the river provides. The only reason we got away with it for so long was because the reservoirs were full when the climate’s shift to hotter temperatures and reduced river flows began 22 years ago. We did not reduce the amount of water we used until recently, and it has not been enough in the face of drought exacerbated by climate change. 

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Q: What happens if we stick with the status quo?

A: If we keep doing what we’re doing, and take water out of the reservoirs—not because it’s wise but because the law allows it—our system as we know it would crash. Water could not be released from Lakes Powell or Mead. A “Day Zero.” This is bad for ALL water users in the Colorado River basin.

There is also the dreadful possibility of no water flowing through the Grand Canyon, or through the Lower Colorado River along the Arizona-California border. That would mean no Colorado River water for tens of millions of people, including numerous sovereign Tribes. No Colorado River water for drinking, bathing, or growing crops, and no water for essential habitats, birds, and other wildlife.

Q: Why does this matter for birds?

A: A future without a running Colorado River would impact 400 bird species including California Condors, Bald Eagles, Southwestern Willow Flycatchers, and countless fish species and other wildlife that reside in and migrate through the Colorado River basin. The Colorado River Delta alone provides habitat for 17 million birds during spring migration and 14 million in the fall, from American White Pelicans and Double-breasted Cormorants to Tree Swallows and Orange-crowned Warblers. 

And because the Delta acts as a “bottleneck” for migrating birds—meaning concentrations of bird populations are significantly higher inside its geographical boundaries than outside of them—changes to water availability or habitat in the Delta could have outsized impacts on tens of millions birds. These impacts could be seen on a global scale.

Environmental water delivery in the Colorado River Delta is timed during the late spring and summer to help native trees germinate. The cottonwood seeds were evident. Photo: Jennifer Pitt/Audubon

Q: Water users need to reduce use by 2-4 million acre feet for 2023, and possibly for 2024 and 2025, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR). How will the seven Colorado River Basin states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming), Tribes, other water users, and the federal government agree to the water reductions necessary to stabilize the river and reservoir system? 

A: The short answer: we don’t know. 

A deadline set by USBR came and went this past August. It’s unclear whether the seven states and water users will reach their own agreement on how to use less water, if federal officials will decide, or, likely the worst-case scenario, if the courts will be the ultimate decision-makers. In the past, the states, Tribes, and other water useres have managed to come up with agreements on how they will use less. Presently, the Upper Basin states (CO, NM, UT, and WY) have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water. They have also agreed to examine how releases of water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin can help stem the decline of downstream reservoirs such as Lake Powell. The trouble now is water levels are dropping so quickly in our two largest reservoirs—Lake Powell and Lake Mead—and water managers as a whole have not been able to come to agreements fast enough.

All water users could agree to use less. That means cities, farms, and businesses could all agree to reduce the amount of water they use so that the difficult task of stabilizing the system is distributed more evenly. 

Q: Why aren’t we all doing that right now—using less? 

A: Presently, the Upper Basin states use far less water than the Lower Basin States. Upper Basin states have agreed to reopen a program that pays water users to use less water, and have agreed to release water stored behind dams in the Upper Basin, all to help stem the decline of Lake Powell. However, the Upper Basin States should not—and cannot—shoulder the crisis alone.

Part of the reason more water users are not cutting back is because of the current way water is managed. Water management in the Colorado River Basin is based on a seniority system of water rights. First come, first served. This means those with junior rights would have their water reduced completely before a senior water rights holder would see their water reduced at all. While this has been the way the system has operated for more than 100 years, it is wearing thin in the face of 20+ years of drought and a shrinking river. 

In the 1960s, Arizona accepted junior priority rights on a portion of its Colorado River water in exchange for federal funding for the Central Arizona Project (or CAP, the 336-mile long canal that delivers Colorado River water to the central, populous parts of the state). As such, Arizona has stepped up and taken water cuts, sooner than originally anticipated. That’s a good thing. But if Arizona is forced to bear the entire shortage burden in the Lower Colorado River Basin, the impacts to millions of people, including vulnerable communities, will be considerable.

The Central Arizona Project canal moves water from the Colorado River to interior Arizona. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

In the face of a shifting climate—reduced snowpack in the mountains due to hotter temperatures and thirstier, drier soils, resulting in less water in rivers—previous efforts to reduce use and save water in Lake Mead, such as the Drought Contingency Plan and the 500+ plan, have not been enough to prevent the Colorado River system from crashing. 

Q: What are specific ideas for using less water and improving the outlook of this dire situation?

A: We could pay people to use less water as well improve the health of the ecosystems and watersheds on which we all rely. Recent federal legislation such as the Inflation Reduction Act allocates $4 billion across the West to do just that. We want to see wise use of this funding—through multi-year agreements and durable projects that reduce water use and improve the health of our rivers and watersheds. 

How will we get there? 

– Upgrade on-farm irrigation methods and equipment to grow crops on less water. 

– Provide incentives for farmers to shift from water-thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa to drought-tolerant crops like guayule and sorghum.

– Restore degraded meadows and streams to allow for more water retention in the mountains.

– Forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires. Burned watersheds degrade water quality and erode soils, impairing the ability for the watershed to function properly.

– Increase the reuse of water. Wastewater can be captured, purified, and reused for outdoor irrigation, groundwater recharge, river restoration, or even drinking water.

– Boost water conservation efforts from cities and businesses, through eliminating unnecessary grass; upgrading plumbing; saving water on outdoor landscaping; and industrial cooling water efficiency upgrades. 

– Deploy funding to mitigate the impacts of less water flowing into affected communities and to improve habitat. Funding should prioritize multiple benefit projects and move beyond one-year water deals.

There is also plenty of work to do just within the state of Arizona to improve our water outlook. We must do everything we can to use the water we do have as wisely as possible. Audubon and our partners in the Water for Arizona Coalition developed the Arizona Water Security Plan, which outlines six critical steps the state of Arizona could take to get our own water house in order. 

Q: What should we be watching out for in Arizona?

A: Given the circumstances, with less Colorado River water coming into Arizona, some may want to rely more heavily on groundwater and weaken existing laws that protect it in the populous parts of the state. Weakening existing groundwater protections just so Arizona can continue to grow without changing how we use and manage water would be irresponsible and short-sighted. We should be closely watching the next legislative session to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Furthermore, Arizona has failed to pass meaningful groundwater protections in the rural parts of the state where none currently exist. We cannot allow Arizona’s rural groundwater to meet the same fate as the Colorado River–especially as rural leaders plead for change. For the benefit of all people in the state, lawmakers must allow rural communities to protect their groundwater supplies. And the better we manage all of our water resources, the more credible a partner Arizona is with other states in ongoing Colorado River negotiations.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

 

Pick your #ColoradoRiver metaphor — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification

On a day in late May [2022] when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

The river is in deep doo-doo, and worse may very well come. So why such a sluggish reaction?

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. It was my first visit.

Turning off the paved highway, I drove about 10 miles around the toe of Sleeping Ute Mountain, past a few irrigation ditches, one carrying water, and a lot of fields and center-pivot sprinklers. I knew the runoff the San Juan Mountains, the source of water for the 7,700-acre farming operations by the Utes, was bad. I didn’t realize just how bad it was.

Unlike many tribal rights in the Colorado River Basin, the water rights of the two Ute tribes in Colorado were negotiated in 1986. The agreement resulted in delivery of water to Towaoc, where I ate at the casino restaurant twice on that trip. Before, potable water had to be trucked in.

Mike Preston, filling in for a Ute leader at the Colorado Water Center conference this week, remembers a time before that delivery of water. “There were stock tanks sitting in people’s yards, and a water truck would back up and fill those tanks, and people would go out with buckets to get their potable water.”

The Utes got other infrastructure, too, including water from the Dolores River stored in the new McPhee Reservoir that allows the Utes to create a profitable farm enterprise. But to get the use of McPhee water, the Utes conceded the seniority of their water rights. It worked well for a lot of years, but now in a warmer, drier climate, it leaves the Utes in a hard, dry place: They got 10% of their full allocation in 2021 and 40% this year.

They have been forced to adapt. Instead of planting alfalfa, they planted corn and other crops that use less water and can be fed to cattle. They culled cattle from their herd of 650. The tribe – as are others in Colorado – is exploring the viability of kernza, a new perennial grain created at The Land Institute in Kansas.

Still, some adaptation is impossible. The agricultural enterprise has laid off about half of its employees. And last year, despite securing all available government grants created to allow farmers to make it through hard times, the operation lost $2 million.

On a day in late May when wildfire smoke obscured the throat of an ancient volcano called Shiprock in the distance, I visited the Ute Mountain Ute farming and ranching operation in the southwestern corner of Colorado. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Listening to that story related by Preston in a video feed to the conference on the campus of Colorado State University, I wondered whether this was a metaphor for what faces the 40 million people who, in one way or another, depend upon water from the Colorado River.

During this same conference, “Living with the Colorado River Compact: Past, Present and Future,” I heard allusions to hospital emergency wards and over-drafted bank accounts. The latter came from Jim Lochhead, who had several decades of Colorado River experience before arriving at Denver Water as chief executive in 2010.

“No wonder Lakes Powell and Mead are in the condition that they are in today,” he said after accounting the over-drafting of the two big reservoirs, now down to 24% and 26% of storage respectively. “The bank account has been drawn down,” he said, “and we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit.”

By now, the 21st century story of the Colorado River has become familiar in its broadest outlines, part of the national narrative of despair. The pivoting reality came on hard in 2002, when the Colorado River carried just 4.5 million acre-feet of water.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

To put that into perspective, as Eric Kuhn, co-author of “Science Be Dammed,” did at this conference, those who framed the Colorado River Compact in 1922 assumed 20.5 million acre-feet as they went about apportioning the river’s flows. In the 21st century, the river has averaged 13 million acre-feet.

Alarm has been sounded but…

Now, scientists are warning that river managers should plan for no more than 11 million acre-feet, a reflection of the new hotter, and in some places, drier climate. Some think that figure is overly optimistic.

The seven basin states – particularly the thirsty states of California and Arizona – have cinched their belts with various agreements. But they have not responded in ways proportionate to the risk they now face. There is a very real danger of the reservoirs dropping to just puddles of dead pool, too little to be released downstream. Imagine the Grand Canyon without water. Imagine no water below Hoover Dam. Do these images leave you dumbstruck?

A public official on the Western Slope recently confided to me that he and others had grown weary of what they called “drought, dust and dystopia” stories. That troubled me, leaving me to wonder how my own stories are being received.

At the conference this week on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, I heard something of the same self-doubt.

“With all due respect to my fellow panelists, I live in an area where some of the topics that are mentioned, we’re not uniformly and broadly received,” said Perry Cabot, the lead researcher at Colorado’s State University’s Western Colorado Research Center near Grand Junction. “I think as researchers, we tend to believe that just more educating is going to change the dynamics of the narrative.”

Other panelists agreed with Cabot’s observation that new narratives, not just information, would better convey the gravity of the situation.

“I think the scientific community has gotten its head handed to itself,” said Brad Udall, who has dome some of the pioneering research that shows that “aridification” – as much or more than drought itself – is driving the reduced flows. Drought ends, but aridification resulting from atmospheric greenhouse gases? Not any time soon.

That has gone against the grain of water managers. A decade ago, there was still skepticism about climate change, and water always has been variable. Surely, good winters would return in the mountains of Colorado and other upper basin states that produce 90% of the river’s flows. Colorado alone is responsible for 60%.

After all, every batter goes through slumps, every best-selling author can tell of rejection slips.

By now, however, a clear trend has become evident. Even in good snow years, the runoff lags.

Andy Mueller, general manager of the Colorado River Water Conservation District, described various outcomes of a river with continued declines in flows. Photo/Allen Best

At the Colorado River Water Conservation District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for refilling the glass that is now far less than half-full in the coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation has been coming up as something worse. For example, the snowpack in the Gunnison River watershed last year was 87% of average, but the runoff was only 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last year has been among the six warmest in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuizen, a water resources engineer for the River District. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to apportion demand to match supply. After all, there’s money in the bank, and for probably a year more, enough water in the reservoirs to generate electricity.

At water meetings, an element of collegiality has remained, at least until recently. Testiness has crept in, an element of what Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based River District, calls finger-pointing.

Colorado water officials, Mueller included, are doing some of that themselves.

They point out that Colorado and the other upper-basin states get nicked for 1.2 million acre-feet in evaporative losses in their delivery of water to Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas. California, Arizona, and Nevada do not. “It’s like running two sets of books,” said Mueller.

Mueller was negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation on the day of the conference in Fort Collins. His stand-in, Dave Kanzer, explained that the Law of the River —the Colorado River Compact and other agreements – don’t necessarily apply anymore. It is “based on long-term stable water supply, and we no longer have that,” he said.

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Renegotiate the compact?

The Colorado River Compact assumed too much water and also used precise numbers when ratios would have been better, Mueller has observed. Instead, those who gathered in Santa Fe in November 1922 apportioned

7.5 million acre-feet to each of the two basins, upper and lower. In practice, the lower-basin states have been using twice as much water as Colorado and other upper-basin states.

Colorado’s average annual consumption from the Colorado River and its tributaries is 2.5 million acre-feet. In terms of the compact, what mattes entirely is when the diversion began, before or after the compact.

About 1.6 million-acre feet- mostly older agriculture rights – are pre-compact, but 900,000 acre-feet came later. This includes water for Western Slopes cities and the nearly all of the 500,000 acre-feet diverted across the Continental Divide to cities along the Front Range and farms in the South Platte and Arkansas River valleys. This water is most imperiled.

Kuhn, the former general manager of the Colorado River District, said he does not believe it’s practical to attempt to amend or renegotiate the Colorado River Compact.

“But within a few years, maybe after we have figured out how to get out of the current crisis, we’re going to essentially ignore all of the provisions of the compact except perhaps article one, which defines the purpose and the signatures page.”

Lochhead has much the same opinion about the much-disputed element of the compact about the obligations of Colorado and other upper basin states to deliver water. It really won’t matter, he said. The real problem is that the basin states need to align demand with supply that, during the last few years, has been close to 11 million acre-feet. (Keep in mind, the compact assumed more than 20 million acre-feet).

“We’re literally in a situation of triage,” said Lochhead. “Something needs to be done in the very near term to lay a foundation for actions that can be taken in the medium and longer term to manage the river to a sustainable condition.”

The feds need to step up

Lochhead outlined three possibly overlapping alternatives.

First: involuntary regulations and restrictions. The federal government – although it has been using it with restraint – does indeed have authority to regulate use of water that enters into Mead. The U.S. Supreme Court has characterized its power as such. The Bureau of Reclamation must be seen as delivering a coherent threat.

“That gives the U.S. government enormous authority over what happens in the lower basin,” Lochhead said. This is unlikely to happen until after the November election, he said, but it absolutely must happen.

Voluntary agreements must also occur. The Bureau of Reclamation imposed an August 2022 deadline for agreements. If the deadline had been a hard one, the states would have failed. Lochhead said it came down to finger pointing. Arizona and California “stared across the river at each other, seeing who’s going to blink first.”

The federal government has now put $4 billion on the table – through the Inflation Reduction Act —to “grease” the skids in terms of voluntary agreements. (Think, perhaps voluntary retirement of water rights). “They’re going to have to buy down demands in the lower basin,” said Lochhead, conjecturing on deals involving the Imperial Irrigation District, the giant ag producer just north of the border with Mexico.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Lochhead also described the need for reductions in water use in the municipal sectors. Denver Water and several other water agencies in Colorado – but also in Nevada and California and Arizona—announced an agreement in August in which they will try to pare their consumption. For example, Denver wants to end irrigation of medians along roads and highways and crimp the amount of water used for turf. But Denver and other cities need to continue to have trees, said Lochhead.

More cities will join this pact to reduce water use for residential consumption in coming weeks and months, Lochhead said.

But he said Colorado may need state legislation to ensure that real-estate developers can’t create landscaping in the future that requires lots of water, offsetting these gains.

That brings me back to the Ute Mountain Ute lands that I visited in May. By virtue of their 1986 agreement, reality has smacked them hard. There is pain, but there is also adjustment. They have had to adjust.

Something of the same thing must occur in the broader Colorado River Basin. So far, it’s easier to postpone action. But another so-so year – or worse? While the states are trying to make the cuts necessary for  a river that is delivering 12 million acre-feet per year, Mueller warns that the plans must contemplate a 9 million acre-foot river, as some scientists have said may come to pass.

But in Grand Junction, one of the scientists pointed out to me that it’s just possible the river may deliver 7 million acre-feet – and that could be next year and the year after.

Then, we may need a new metaphor, something worse than an empty bank account.

Cheerful delusions about the #ColoradoRiver — @BigPivots #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Sunset on the Colorado River at Silt September 2022. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

We really would rather be getting news about another Super Bowl triumph or the end of the 55-year drought in Denver Nuggets championships. But the Colorado River is rapidly nearing total disfunction. It is the story du jour.

Rivers and streams on Colorado’s Western Slope chattered excitedly with runoff during mid-September after several days of rain, softening landscapes that had turned sullen after another hot summer.

The water was a blink of good news for a Colorado River that needs something more. It needs a long, sloppy kiss of wetness.

Hard, difficult decisions have almost entirely lagged what has been needed during the last 20 years of declining reservoir levels and rapidly rising temperatures. Hope has lingered stubbornly. After all, every batter has slumps. And maybe next winter and spring it will snow hard and long in Colorado, source of 60% of the river’s water, instead of getting unseemly warm come April and May, as has mostly been the case.

This glass half-full hopefulness has left the two big reservoirs, Mead and Powell, at roughly 25% of capacity. To prevent worse, the smaller savings accounts near the headwaters – Navajo Reservoir in New Mexico, Blue Mesa in Colorado, and Flaming Gorge on the Utah-Wyoming border – have been pilfered. Little remains to be tapped.

Even threats from the Bureau of Reclamation this year failed to spur definitive action. “We can’t keep doing this,” said Andy Mueller, general manager of the Glenwood Springs-based Colorado River Water Conservation District, a major water policy agency for the Western Slope.

Difference from average temperature in the top 300 meters (~984 feet) of the tropical Pacific between June 7 and August 1, 2022. A deep pool of cooler-than-average water (blue) spread eastward and will continue rising to the surface in coming months, feeding the current La Niña. Animation by NOAA Climate.gov, based on data from NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

Recently at the River District’s annual seminar in Grand Junction, Brendon Langenhuizen offered no hope for recovery this coming year. It will be the third La Nina in a row, he pointed out, likely producing above-average temperatures and hence below-average precipitation.

Even so-so precipitation comes up as something less. Yampa River Valley snowpack last winter was 84% of average; runoff lagged at 76%. The Gunnison River watershed figures were even worse; snowpack of 87% yielding runoff of 64%.

Dry soils have sopped up moisture, and then there is the heat. The last 12 months have been among the six warmest years in the last century in Colorado, said Langenhuisen, a water rights engineer. Summer rains the last two years have helped. Still, the reservoir levels drop, the seven basin states so far unable to agree on cuts that would match demand with supply.

It’s tempting to accuse the states of being caught up in century-old thinking. After all, they nominally operate under provisions of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. They have taken steps but they insufficiently acknowledge the shifting hydrologic reality. Instead of delivering an average 20.5 million acre-feet, as the compact assumed, the river has delivered 13 million acre-feet in the 21st century. In the last few years, it’s been worse yet, about 12 million acre-feet.

How low can it go? Mueller talked about learning to live within 9 million acre-feet, as some climate scientists have warned may be necessary. Climate scientists have built up some credibility as their forecasts have been, if anything, a tad conservative.

A scientist I talked with in Grand Junction suggested potential for an even starker future. What if the river delivers just 7 million acre-feet a year for the next two or three years?

One of my acquaintances, a county official on the Western Slope, recently confided weariness with the now familiar narrative of “drought, dust, and dystopia” on the Colorado River. Understood. We all want to see the Broncos and Avs win. More instructive may be the Denver Nuggets, who are now in a 55-year championship drought.

We will need to sort through what grasses we want and can afford, both in residential settings and in pubic areas, such as Colorado Mesa University, above. That will extend to grasses grown to feed livestock. Top, the Colorado River at Silt, Colo. on Sept. 17. Photo/Allen Best

Jim Lochhead, chief executive of Denver Water, likens the situation on the Colorado River to a bank account that has been drawn down. “And we’re looking at a zero balance with no line of credit,” he said this week at the Colorado Water Center conference in Fort Collins.

What is needed? From a perspective in Colorado, Lochhead argues for a stronger, more assertive federal role. Lochhead was for many years a lawyer based in Glenwood Springs who represented Colorado in river issues.

Map credit: AGU

Everybody that depends upon Colorado River water from northeastern Colorado to Los Angeles and San Diego will have a role, he says. Denver for example, wants to crowd out grass from medians and incentivize turf removal.

Lower-basin states use about twice as much as the upper basin states, and there the cuts must be more radical. Lochhead wants to see the federal government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, more assertively force the lower-basin states to make those hard decisions. Federal authority over water entering Lake Mead has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, he points out, and he suggests the agency may use that power after the November election.

The broad theme will be reducing water used for low-value grasses. That takes in suburban lawns but also the water-greedy grasses grown for livestock, including corn and alfalfa. Hard choices, but they must be made. What more warning do we need?

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Federal Water Tap — Circle of Blue

Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, by John Distrunell, the 1847 map used during the negotiations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Public domain.

Click the link to read the article on the Circle of Blue website:

At a conference in Santa Fe, federal officials outlined steps they are taking to respond to critically low reservoirs in the Colorado River basin.

The Interior Department is preparing now in case next year is another hydrological dud.

Officials are setting up the paperwork for releasing even less water from Lake Powell than anticipated. According to operating guidelines, 7 million acre-feet will flow out of the reservoir in 2023. If water levels recede to the point that hydropower generation is endangered, Interior could throttle back those releases, as it did this year.

Interior is also studying structural modifications that would allow for the release water from Powell when the reservoir is low, a move that environmental groups in the basin have called for.

The #ColoradoRiver at the end of #water year 2022: a status report — InkStain #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the post on the InkStain website (John Fleck):

I don’t see how this ends well.

Most of the major players – the ones that matter, anyway, by which I mean Arizona, California, and the federal government – appear boxed in by constraints they can’t seem to overcome, while the water in the Colorado River’s big reservoirs is circling the drains.

Arizona’s giving up a lot of water right now, and it’s hard to see how they solve their in-state politics and give up more without California coming up with substantial cuts of its own. Meanwhile California’s internal politics have so far constrained it from coming up with meaningful contributions. This may change soon, but the numbers being discussed may not be enough to move the needle as far as it needs to move. And the federal government seems torn between tough immediate actions and placing responsibility on the states to come up with a plan to save themselves.

Last week’s Water Education Foundation Colorado River symposium in Santa Fe was striking.

It’s an invitation-only event, and I’m not sure what the ground rules are, so I’ll treat it as a sort of “Chatham House Rules” thing.

I will say this. I moderated a panel. Harsh words were exchanged. I was kind of an asshole as I tried to get people to say the quiet parts out loud. But right now, we need to be saying the quiet parts out loud, because the water is circling the drains.

obligatory cracked mud photo (Mead is, like, 40 feet lower right now than when I took this). Credi: John Fleck

THE STATUS OF THE RESERVOIRS

Lake Mead will end water year 2022 next Friday [September 30, 2022] with a surface elevation ~1,044 feet above sea level, down 1.8 million acre feet from a year ago.

Lake Powell will end the year at somewhere around elevation ~3,529, down 1.5 million acre feet from a year ago.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which must now be in the end-of-water-year mix because of the way Reclamation and the states have begun moving water around like pawns on the Upper Basin chess board, will end the year at elevation 6,013, down 300,000 acre feet from last year.

Credit: USBR

Absent action by water users to use less, next year’s not-all-that-farfetched possibilities (by which I mean the Bureau of Reclamation’s latest “minimum probable” forecast) has Powell dropping below minimum power by the end of 2023 – and staying there. Absent downstream action by water users to use less water, Mead drops to 1,016 by the of water year 2023.

Credit: USBR

If the federal government holds water back in Powell to prevent the need to use the dam’s bypass tubes, that drops Mead even farther.

For those not steeped in the numbers, this is cracked-mud, five-alarm fire bad.

2022 Water Use

Source: USBR, Lower Colorado River Basin water use forecast, retrieved 9/25/2022

Californians are touchy about these numbers, specifically the observation that they’re taking more than their full allocation this year, even as the reservoirs are tanking. They point out that in recent years they have used significantly less than their allocated 4.4 million acre feet, banking unused water in Lake Mead as a hedge against drought. Which they’re suffering now, massively. Which is true, and fair to point out.

So, for completeness sake, here are the three Lower Basin states’ annual take on Lake Mead going back a decade.

I point this out as a native Californian, and with love for my California friends. The laws and policies we have developed allow – even encourage! – this. The doctrine of prior appropriation was designed to remove water from our rivers for “beneficial use”, emptying them in the process. California played a masterful game over the 20th century to ensure the priority of its water rights and the federal largesse needed to put the water to use.

But understand, please, why everyone else in the basin is glaring at you: you have a larger allocation than everyone else, and you’ve been reducing your use less than everyone else. The law gives your water use priority over others in the basin, but that doesn’t make it feel any fairer to the rest of us as everyone is being asked to cut back to save the shrinking river on which we all depend.

BOXED IN

So where do we go now?

Despite the failure of the basin states to come up with a plan to reduce water use in 2023, and the unwillingness or inability of the federal government to impose one, the mass balance problem has not changed. The “protection volumes” – the amount of cutbacks needed next year and every year thereafter for the foreseeable future – are still huge. If the 2023 water year is similar to the last three, water users need to cut 2 million acre feet just to hold the reservoirs where they are and protect Lake Mead and Lake Powell from dropping to critically low elevations, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s modeling.

Never mind about refilling.

According to a piece by Jake Bittle at Grist, California is working on a deal among the water users that would cut something – it’s not entirely clear what, Bittle references a range of 350,000 to 500,000 acre feet. This is super interesting in part because of the context – this is California going it alone. Yay for voluntary cuts! But it’s hard to see how the largest user on the system agreeing to cuts of that size gets us anywhere close to 2 million acre feet. But given the water politics within California, it’s also hard to see how California cuts more, at least voluntarily. Imperial Irrigation District is rightly demanding action on the Salton Sea, which has been shrinking as a result of past Imperial cutbacks. (Less irrigation means less percolation and runoff into the Sea. Bad air quality, bad mojo, as the Sea shrinks.) Getting Imperial farmers (and others, but Imperial’s the big player) to accept cutbacks voluntarily will have a big price tag. Forcing the cuts will almost certainly lead to litigation.

That leaves Arizona in a box. They’ve already cut nearly 800,000 acre feet this year, which is huge. There’s more water to be had in Yuma – again, for a price – but it’s hard to see Arizona coughing up more water absent California cutting more deeply. Where’s the fairness in that?

All the rest of us – Nevada, and the states of the Upper Basin – can do is look on in horror. I’ve been critical of the Upper Basin states for not agreeing to kick in some water, and I still think we’re going to have to do that sooner or later. But we’re only using ~4 million acre feet a year, on average, of our 7.5 million acre foot allocation. At this point, any savings we can muster are small relative to the use by California and Arizona. And given the Lower Basin states’ inability to come up with a plan, anything we do add to the system right now will just drain out the bottom in continued overuse.

Which leaves the federal hammer.

According to a press release last week, which (oddly?) came from the Department of Interior rather than the Bureau of Reclamation, Interior is preparing for the possibility that it may need to reduce releases from Glen Canyon Damn in 2023. (See Kuhn, Fleck, and Schmidt on this question.) This echoes something Reclamation said in August.

That would have the effect of further dropping Mead as Reclamation’s engineers scramble to protect Glen Canyon Dam.

Interior is also:

“Preparing to take action to make additional reductions in 2023, as needed, through an administrative process to evaluate and adjust triggering elevations and/or increase reduction volumes identified in the 2007 Interim Guidelines Record of Decision.”

I do not know what that means. I do not know if it is different from what Reclamation said in August, that the agency will:

“Take administrative actions needed to further define reservoir operations at Lake Mead, including shortage operations at elevations below 1,025 feet to reduce the risk of Lake Mead declining to critically low elevations.”

Folks in the federal government are frankly boxed in as well – between Lower Basin users unwilling or unable to cut use enough on their own to save themselves, with constraints imposed by a sincere attempt to be more inclusive of Tribal interests than the federal government has ever been, with the crazy problems of the Salton Sea hovering over any attept to rein in the basin’s largest water user, with the international challenge of including Mexico in the coming decisions, and with a crucial mid-term election looming.

So far, those constraints have prevented the federal government from getting specific about the threats – at least in public.

It’s hard to look at all these constraints, the boxed-in-ness – on Arizona, on California, on the federal government – and not see dead pool looming.

Absent a big snowpack, I don’t see how this ends well.

Nathan Elder, water supply manager for Denver Water, in April 2019, standing in a snowpit dug to gauge the snow’s temperature, depth,

Tribal breakthrough? Four states, six tribes announce first formal talks on #ColoradoRiver negotiating authority — @WaterEdCO #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education website (Jerd Smith):

Colorado and three other Upper Colorado River Basin states have, for the first time in history, embarked on a series of formal meetings to find a way to negotiate jointly with some of the largest owners of Colorado River water rights: tribal communities.

The states, which include New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, began meeting with six tribes several weeks ago, according to Rebecca Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board who also represents Colorado on the Upper Colorado River Basin Commission.

The tribes are the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Utah, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Paiute Tribe in Utah, as well as Colorado’s Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, based in Towaoc, and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, whose lands lie in and around Ignacio.

“We have four Upper Basin states and the six Upper Basin tribes, 10 sovereigns, in the room together saying that the table that is set is not the table that works for all, and we are going to create our own table. They are really focused on solutions and being part of the burden and part of the success,” Mitchell said.

The six tribes are among 30 tribal communities in the seven-state Colorado River Basin, which, combined, have paper water rights to roughly 25% to 30% of the river’s flows, more than 3.2 million acre-feet of water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

The news came Sept. 16 at the Colorado River District’s Annual Seminar in Grand Junction. The river district represents 15 counties on Colorado’s West Slope and is responsible for policy and managing the river within those boundaries.

For more than 100 years, modern water management in the American West has been conducted by the federal and state governments, without formal tribal leaders.

Under Western water law, water has to be measured, its historical use rates certified, and it has to be diverted so that it can be put to beneficial use. Tribal water rights are treated differently. Tribes’ water rights date back to the time when the reservations were created, based on a law that was applied retroactively – many reservations were established before the law existed and so the amount of water they received was never quantified or adjudicated. For this reason, many tribes have had to settle their water rights within the state or states where their reservation lies— some of those negotiations remain unsettled. Many tribes have never measured their water use and, even among those tribes with quantified water rights, many have never had the money to build the dams, pipelines and reservoirs that allow them to put the resource to use.

Roughly 60% of the water the tribes legally possess has never been developed or integrated into the region’s hierarchy of water rights, though they are often some of the oldest, according to tribal estimates.

Daryl Vigil, Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator, said tribal leaders want the federal government to create a new framework to right past wrongs and establish a process for tribes to participate in critical river negotiations.

For too long, he said, “The policy-making process has been left up to the seven basin states and the federal government. We want to speak on behalf of our own water. We’ve heard a whole lot about scarcity and pain,” he told the Grand Junction audience of roughly 400 people. “And we know a whole lot about that. We’re asking, we’re demanding participation because it is a basic human right.”

During the past five years, as the Colorado River has sunk deeper into crisis, the tribes have begun working together and asserting their right to negotiate with federal, state and local water agencies to determine how their water will be used, how badly needed tribal water systems can be built, and how tribes can be fairly compensated for the water that has long been used by others.

Despite increased public pressure to recognize the tribes’ water rights and to include them in critical negotiations and decision-making processes, they continue to be shut out, including in the most recent talks over how to achieve the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cuts that U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton ordered back in June in order to keep lakes Mead and Powell operating.

Another set of critical talks set to begin in the near future still has no mechanism for including the tribes. These are talks that will determine how to operate the river well into the future, after the current framework for river operations, known as the 2007 Interim Guidelines, expires at the end of 2026. Tribes were not included in the talks leading up to the 2007 agreement either.

Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, said traditional water users in the Colorado River Basin won’t survive unless tribal waters are legally recognized, developed and put to use by tribes and other users in the basin.

“We are a sovereign government. We should be considered just as a state would be. If you think that we shouldn’t be involved, then don’t include our 30% allocation for anyone else’s use … We need to be included in every one of these conversations. My reservation was established in 1868. We are first in time first in line. You cannot discount us,” she said.

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

Native land loss 1776 to 1930. Credit: Alvin Chang/Ranjani Chakraborty

The #ColoradoRiver is drying up — but basin states have ‘no plan’ on how to cut water use — #Colorado Public Radio #COriver #aridification #overdrawn22

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Click the link to read the article on the Colorado Public Radio website (Rachel Estabrook and Michael Elizabeth Sakas). Here’s an excerpt:

Water leaders, agricultural producers, environmentalists and others from across the drought-stricken river basin met Friday for the Colorado River District’s annual water seminar to discuss the historic-low levels in the river’s biggest reservoirs — and the need to cut back usage from Wyoming to California. While the problems the basin faces were apparent in the day-long discussions about the state of the river, solutions were not. The event’s host, Colorado River District General Manager Andy Mueller, told attendees that scientists now recommend that water managers plan for the river to provide just 9 million acre-feet of water annually. That’s a reduction of about a quarter from the amount used in 2021 by U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico. In an interview, Mueller said the Friday seminar was held to educate attendees on the seriousness of the Colorado River situation. Still unanswered is what the states and tribes represented in the room will do to drastically curtail use. 

While the representatives for the governments agreed that solutions need to be collaborative, no one offered to be the first to make big cuts. However, representatives from nearly every state stressed that they have already cut back on the amount of water they’re legally allowed to use.

The All American Canal carries water from the Colorado River to farms in California’s Imperial Valley. The Imperial Irrigation District holds more rights to Colorado River water than any other user in the basin. Photo credit: Adam Dubrowa, FEMA/Wikipedia.

“I think the honest answer is right now there is no plan,” J.B. Hamby of the Imperial Irrigation District in California said in response to a question from the audience about how significant cutbacks would be achieved. 

The Imperial district’s farms use millions of acre-feet of water a year to produce massive portions of the national food system. Hamby said water managers along the Colorado River have been distracted by incremental “dumpster fires,” and are not adequately focusing on the need for a new long-term plan that accounts for reduced water in the river.

The theme [of the seminar “Overdrawn”] refers to the emergency status of the Colorado River and its biggest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Mead, on the border of Nevada and Arizona, has dropped so low that there’s fear that turbines at Hoover Dam won’t have enough water to keep spinning and generating hydroelectric power for millions of people…

Throughout the seminar sessions Friday, upper-basin managers said lower-basin states need to take the lead in the water savings. Asked why the upper basin wouldn’t put out a plan first to get the entire river system closer to a solution, Mueller with the Colorado River Water Conservation District said in the interview with CPR News that the state of Colorado is working on specific conservation plans but doesn’t intend to release them until the lower-basin states act…Meanwhile, lower-basin water managers attending the Friday conference stressed the water savings they have made in the past and asked that states like Colorado stop waiting for the lower-basin to act.

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read “Cutting river usage: Is first move up to Lower Basin?” on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website (Dennis Webb). Here’s an excerpt:

Andy Mueller, general manager of western Colorado’s Colorado River District, said at the annual water seminar that his entity puts on that everyone in the basin needs to come to the table with solutions for reducing usage. But before that can occur, he said the federal Bureau of Reclamation needs to address the fact that the way river water is currently divvied up between Upper and Lower Basin states doesn’t account for evaporation and transit loss in the Lower Basin that amounts to 1.2 million acre-feet a year.

“The key here is getting the accounting fixed and then recognizing that we all have an obligation to participate (in conservation measures) as well,” Mueller said.

He warned that alternatively the river district may consider pursuing litigation to make that fix happen.

Friday’s event at Colorado Mesa University comes as the Colorado River Compact that divvies up river water between the Upper and Lower basins turns 100 years old this year. Drought and a warming climate have reduced precipitation and streamflows in the basin during the last 20 or so years that the compact has been in effect. While it allocated 7.5 million acre-feet a year to each of the basins, the watershed doesn’t produce that volume of water. Water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead are at less than a quarter of what they can hold, which is threatening their ability to produce hydroelectric power and raising the prospect of them reaching “deadpool” and being no longer functional.

While overall demand on the Colorado River trended upward from 1970 to the late 1990s, it plateaued when the region entered the current megadrought. Although this data only goes to 2010, the plateau has pretty much held. But at over 14 MAF per year, demand is significantly higher than what the river has supplied most years. Note that more water is lost to reservoir evaporation than is sent to Mexico. Source: USBR Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study.

The Lower Basin has been using more water than allocated to it under the 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin, far less than its share. In addition, Mueller said, evaporation of water in federal Upper Basin reservoirs such as Powell, Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa gets attributed to the usage by the Upper Basin, which he said makes sense. But evaporation and transit losses aren’t calculated into Lower Basin usage, which Mueller, an attorney, said is “probably illegal in the context of the river.” He said the Bureau of Reclamation needs to fix that, but doesn’t want to because of the pain it would cause in the Lower Basin and the potential for resulting litigation…

Mueller then added, “I just want to be clear, from my perspective and the river district’s, there very well may be litigation if they don’t fix this problem, from us, because if their threat is to come after our federal projects in the Upper Basin we will defend those projects.”

Already, the Bureau of Reclamation has been making some water releases from Upper Basin federal reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa to try to shore up levels in Lake Powell.

Colorado River Compact Symposium September 26, 2022: Living with the #ColoradoRiver Compact: Past, present and future — #Colorado State University

Herbert Hoover presides over the signing of the Colorado River Compact in November 1922. Members of the Colorado River Commission stood together at the signing of the Colorado River Compact on November 24, 1922. The signing took place at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover presiding (seated). (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Reclamation)

Click here to register:

Join us for the Symposium of the Year!

The Colorado River supplies have significantly been reduced over the last two decades and is the subject of many news articles. This symposium is to inform attendees interested in learning more about the Colorado River and the Colorado River Compact.

The agenda of the symposium is now available; click here!

The event will take place in the Lory Center Ballroom, on the second floor.

Attendance is free and lunch will be provided. Make sure to register as spots are limited!

Arizona Department of #Water Resources Director and Central #Arizona Project General Manager give grim assessment of #ColoradoRiver conditions #COriver #aridification

Glen Canyon Dam. Photo credit: USBR

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona Department of Water Resources website:

Buschatzke and Cooke named Environmental Leaders of the Year

Wednesday’s [September 14, 2022] online presentation of the Arizona Capitol Times’ “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” served up an hour-long assessment of how the State’s water supply is faring during the current, epic drought conditions.

Some of the news, like that from Leslie Meyers, the newly appointed Associate General Manager & Chief Water Resources Executive for Salt River Project, included refreshing good news. The in-state SRP water supply is in good shape, she reported.

But, as anticipated, most of the Morning Scoop discussion focused on the strained Colorado River system. The Morning Scoop panelists – including ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke – could report very little that could be considered upbeat.

ADWR Director Buschatzke reported that declines in the system will continue because “we are still using more water than is going into Lake Mead.”

The Director noted, however, that “we have done many good things” in recent years, including the Drought Contingency Plan of 2019the 500+ Plan of 2021 and other conservation measures. “And while they have not stabilized the system, we would have been in much worse shape if we had not done those things.” [ed. emphasis mine]

The situation on the Colorado River system, nevertheless, is dire.

Credit: USBR

“We’re heading into, essentially, a crisis period.”

Without the 2-4 million acre-feet of needed conservation identified by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June, “we could see as early as 2024 Lake Mead and Lake Powell falling to elevations in which the ability to move water past (Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam) could be compromised.”

Buschatzke made his online comments with an image of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon behind him.

“If you think about the background of my picture, the Grand Canyon, if you can’t move water past Glen Canyon Dam, you would have no water in the Grand Canyon. Think about what that would mean.”

Credi: USBR

CAP General Manager Cooke gave an assessment of the current capacity of the two big reservoirs – both at a quarter of their capacity with just 13 million acre-feet of storage – a small fraction of the 50 million acre-feet of total capacity.

“We’re about a year away from not being able to move water past those two dams,” said Cooke.

Terry Goddard, chairman of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, welcomed the nearly 300 viewers in front of a virtual background photo of Lake Mead’s notorious “bathtub ring” – a reminder of the crisis enveloping the Colorado River system.

The ring, he noted, “is a grim reminder of how far that lake has fallen in a very short time.”

Credit: USBR

Goddard registered disappointment that the Department of the Interior in mid-August failed to announce actions to protect the river system from potentially catastrophic storage declines in its primary reservoirs. He recalled that, in June, the Bureau of Reclamation had vowed that if the Colorado River States failed to agree to voluntarily conserve between 2-4 million acre-feet, in addition to the already planned cuts, the federal government would act to protect the system.

Goddard observed that when the states failed to find agreement, “something much bigger was supposed to happen” in addition to the announcement of the planned cutbacks. “But it didn’t,” he said. “They blinked.”

Also on the panel, was Joe Gysel, President of the private water-provider, EPCOR USA.

Arizona Capitol Times “Morning Scoop on Water Issues in Arizona” can be found below: 

This is a follow-up to our May Morning Scoop about Water issues in Arizona. In this session we will explore what has changed in the past few months, the current outlook and then dive into some solutions that are being examined. Credit: Arizona Capitol Times

Earlier in September, the Capitol Times announced the recipients of its annual “Leaders of the Year in Public Policy.”

Among those leaders were ADWR Director Buschatzke and CAP General Manager Ted Cooke, who both were cited for their work in environmental matters.

Each year, the Capitol Times recognizes leaders who have contributed to the growth of our state.

According to the Cap Times, “These are the people and groups that hunker down each day to find ways to improve the quality of life of Arizona’s citizens.”

The awardees will be recognized at an awards luncheon at noon. on Sept. 27 at the Phoenix Art Museum. They will also be profiled in a special edition of the Arizona Capitol Times.

Renewable Natural Resources Foundation Round Table: The Challenges of Allocating #ColoradoRiver Water – Hot 20-year #drought and soaring populations #COriver #aridification

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Click the link to read the article on the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation website (Stephen Yaeger):

Senior water and climate research scientist at Colorado State University and one of the authors of the National Climate Assessment. Photo credit: Colorado State University Water Institute

Brad Udall, a Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist at Colorado State University, spoke at a virtual meeting of the RNRF Washington Round Table on Public Policy on March 9, 2021. He discussed the imbalance between water supply and demand in the Colorado River basin, how climate change is exacerbating the issue, and the ongoing renegotiation of the river’s management guidelines.

Introduction and Background

The Colorado River basin extends into seven states (Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California) as well as Mexico, along with the land of 29 Native American tribes. The American portion of the basin represents 8% of the area of the lower 48 states. Altogether, about 40 million people, including the populations of all major cities in the Southwestern U.S., rely on the Colorado for some portion of their water supply. The river is used heavily for municipalities as well as agriculture, with about 4.5 million acres of irrigated land in the basin.

The water supply in the river is often measured by the water levels in its two major reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell. These are the two biggest reservoirs in the U.S. In order to maintain sustainable levels in these two reservoirs over a long time period, withdrawals from the river must equal the supply being provided by the river’s flow. This was the case in 2000, when the combined contents of the reservoirs were over 90% full. Since then, their water level has dwindled to less than 50% due to a “structural deficit” – demand for the river’s water consistently outpacing supply. This is due in large part to the fact that over the past 20 years, the basin has been experiencing its worst drought on record. The flow of the river has decreased from ~14.75 million acre-feet (maf) to ~12.4 maf. Even before the drought began, water demand was high in the basin; since about 1990, it has not reliably reached the ocean.

While the current situation in the watershed is usually described as a drought, a lack of precipitation is really only half the story. Regional temperature increases, exacerbated by climate change, have also had a significant impact on the reduction of water availability. Udall noted that evaporative losses will only become more severe as climate change worsens. The Southwest is already one of the quickest-warming areas of the country, a trend that is expected to continue. The risk of multidecadal droughts will also continue to drastically increase in coming decades. The 2000-2018 period was the second-driest 19-year period in the basin since 800 AD. While this is partially attributed to natural variation, researchers have said that 50% of the decrease in soil moisture can be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Climate change has turned what would likely be a moderate drought into an extreme, historic drying event. Aridification and heating, along with reduction in precipitation, are causing drastically drying conditions in a river basin that tens of millions of people rely on for their water.

Historical Management of the River

In 1922, to fully allocate use of the river’s water, the basin states agreed to the Colorado River Compact. This agreement still serves as the basis for the Law of the River, which is the set of rules for the river’s allocation and management. In response to the “hot drought” happening since 2000, new modifications to the Law of the River have been necessary to prevent the reservoirs from becoming depleted. The first of these, called the Colorado River Interim Guidelines, went into effect in 2007. These guidelines set out a series of complicated rules for how Lakes Powell and Mead are operated, allowing different quantities of water to be released from them when they are at certain elevations. They constrain use of water when the reservoirs are low. One innovative structure used to accomplish this is “intentionally created surplus,” which allows parties in the lower basin to store their water in a sort of “bank account” in Lake Mead.

Around 2013, it was becoming clear that persistently dry and hot conditions were rendering the 2007 Interim Guidelines insufficient. A new agreement was necessary. As a result, two new “Drought Contingency Plans” (DCPs) for the Upper and Lower Basins were adopted in 2019. Early in 2021, for the first time, drought conditions in the river reached the point where the DCPs’ provisions were activated. Udall noted that these agreements made some progress toward making the river’s use more sustainable but were not a permanent solution.

Future Management of the River

Udall finished his presentation by discussing future prospects for sustainably managing the river in these drying conditions. In 2026, the 2007 Interim Guidelines and DCPs expire. The seven basin states, 29 tribes, Mexico, and the federal government have already begun the multi-year process of renegotiating a new set of guidelines which will be adopted in 2027. The following are some central considerations for a successful new agreement described by Udall.

The Upper Basin’s “Delivery” Obligation

Among the problems that stakeholders are aiming to resolve is the nature of the Upper Basin’s delivery obligations. There is a clause in the original Colorado River Compact that says that the Upper Basin shall not allow the flow of the river to decline below 75 maf every ten running years. However, it is not clear if this obligation is really a “delivery” obligation or if it is a “non-depletion” obligation. If it is a delivery obligation, that means that the entire reduction of flow coming from the Upper Basin due to climate change falls on the Upper Basin to solve. Clearly, this was not the intent of this clause in the original 1922 compact, and the Upper Basin states are making this argument.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

Tribal Issues

Native American tribes are expected to have a much more significant role in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines than they have had in previous decision-making processes for management of the river. There are 29 tribes in the basin. Altogether, they have a right to control about 20% of the basin’s water. This right derives from a 1908 Supreme Court decision which issued the “Winters Doctrine.” This doctrine said that when the federal government creates a reservation of land for a tribe, implicit in that reservation is a water right.

However, tribal interests were still left out of the 1922 compact, and many of their rights remain unquantified. Even in the 21st century, the tribes in the basin were not invited to participate in the 2007 Interim Guidelines negotiations or the 2012 Basin Study. The 2019 DCPs were an important development in the inclusion of tribes in river management discussions after their needs and rights had been historically ignored. For the first time, these 29 distinct tribes were acting collectively and were included in the planning process. The DCPs were also the first time that a tribe agreed to accept a monetary payment in exchange for using less than their full water right. Inclusion of tribal interests in the renegotiation of the Interim Guidelines is expected, and will be essential to the new agreement’s success.

The Structural Deficit

Fundamental to the dilemma faced by basin stakeholders in this renegotiation process is the “structural deficit.” This is, quite simply, an imbalance between the supply of and demand for water in the basin. Since 2000, demand has outpaced supply. Demand reductions are challenging because once a water user has access to a supply of water, it is difficult to get them to relinquish it. The supply-side is more challenging to address. In the absence of cooler temperatures and more precipitation ­– conditions increasingly unlikely as climate changes — it is difficult to create more supply. It is easier to change consumption patterns than it is to change the hydrology of the river. Without demand reductions in the Upper and Lower Basins, there is a high probability that the amount of water in the reservoirs will continue to fall.

Udall referenced a recent study that found that the Upper Basin’s water demand is unsustainably high. Despite this finding, parts of the Upper Basin actually want to increase their demand, which in the face of declining flows is an issue that will need to be addressed in the negotiation process. Demand Management measures, by which water users can voluntarily accept money in exchange for reducing their water consumption, will likely be part of the solution in the Upper Basin but caps on demand may also be necessary to ensure that the delivery obligation is fulfilled.

In the Lower Basin, the Central Arizona Project diverts water from the Colorado River into Arizona, providing water for an area including the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. As a part of the original agreement that permitted this project, it was agreed that if there ever was a shortage of water in the basin, Arizona would bear the brunt of demand reductions. Demand reductions will likely be necessary in the Lower Basin but Udall noted that it would be difficult in practice to mandate that they all come from Arizona. Solving this dilemma will be a part of the new Interim Guidelines negotiations. One method that may be used is to begin charging evaporative losses to state water budgets in proportion to their use. Currently, evaporation is being charged to nobody, which is a part of the overuse problem.

Guidelines for Successful Renegotiation

Udall also identified other steps that can be taken by stakeholders to work toward a successful new set of interim guidelines. First, he emphasized the importance of good science. Realistic climate and hydrological modelling are necessary to inform the negotiations. Udall noted that many of the models being used by watershed states are overly optimistic with regard to future hydrology. Beginning the negotiations with inaccurate presumptions about the future of the watershed are setting the new agreement up for failure. While the renegotiation is a political process, it needs to be informed by most accurate scientific information possible.

Because the structural deficit is a basin-wide issue, Udall advocated for the use of a combined metric that adds the quantity of water in Lakes Mead and Powell. This would be a more accurate way to gauge water shortages because the water in the reservoirs individually is less important than the total quantity between them when informing the management of the entire river basin. He also said that using clear language in negotiations is critical. For instance, one should never inaccurately say that the Colorado River Compact itself is being renegotiated. It is only the Interim Guidelines that are being replaced; the Compact remains the foundation for the river’s allocation.

The renegotiation process is more than just a group of stakeholders sitting around a table, working out a plan for the river. It is a series of large and small meetings, some more formal than others. Since not everything is negotiated in official sessions, there is room for behind-the-scenes discussion while also maintaining transparency. During the round table’s Q&A session, Udall mentioned that river management issues under discussion will be reported by many talented journalists, who will bring transparency to the process for interested parties.

Ultimately, the process of renegotiating the Interim Guidelines requires a balancing of political, economic, environmental, and societal values. Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and it is at the center of these water issues in the American West. While one can easily become disillusioned by political processes, especially in the realm of climate and environmental issues, Udall ended on a note of optimism. While the solutions are not all clear, there are good relationships among stakeholders, which will form a solid foundation for successful negotiations.

– Stephen Yaeger, RNRF Program Manager

The PowerPoint Udall used during his presentation can be found here.

In his presentation, Udall referenced a series of studies about the climate and hydrological conditions of the Colorado River. They can be found at the following links:

Increasing influence of air temperature on upper Colorado River streamflow

The twenty‐first century Colorado River hot drought and implications for the future

On the Causes of Declining Colorado River Streamflows

Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains

Large contribution from anthropogenic warming to an emerging North American megadrought

Colorado River flow dwindles as warming-driven loss of reflective snow energizes evaporation

When is Drought not a Drought? Drought, Aridification, and the “New Normal”

Alternative Management Paradigms for the Future of the Colorado and Green Rivers

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Data Mega-Dump: Alfalfa (Part II) — @Land_Desk #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Hayfield in Orderville, Utah, irrigated with water from the East Fork of the Virgin River, a Colorado River tributary. Jonathan P. Thompson photo.

Click the link to read the article on the Land Desk website (Jonathan P. Thompson):

By now you may have heard that the Colorado River is in trouble, as are the 40 million or so people who rely on it and all the people (and livestock) that eat the crops it irrigates. It’s not the only Western river facing a crisis: The situation on the Klamath is dire and the Rio Grande pretty much dried up this summer, its demise delayed by an abundant monsoon.

The problem is simple: The collective water users are consuming more water than is actually in the river and its tributaries; that is, they are pulling about 14 million acre feet each year out of a river that only has about 12 million acre feet of water in it. And consumption continues to hold steady even as the river continues to shrink, drawing down reserves to a critically low level. 

Or to put it in the possibly more relatable terms of a household budget: Spending is remaining constant even as the household income shrinks. The household is running a deficit, in other words, which is rapidly emptying the savings accounts (Lakes Mead and Powell). And, on top of that, the household has outstanding debts (to tribal nations whose senior water rights have yet to be developed, honored or even quantified). The accountants have tapped into retirement accounts (Upper Basin reservoirs such as Flaming Gorge and Blue Mesa) and imposed temporary cuts (Tier 1 and 2a Shortages) to shore up the savings accounts, but it isn’t enough. 

Spending must be dramatically and permanently slashed to better-than-sustainable levels, now, to avert crisis, allow the household to start building back its savings—and, finally, to settle those outstanding debts. 

Which is why Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the collective water users in the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to figure out how to cut 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of consumption, per year. That’s a whopping amount (Arizona’s total use is less than 2.8 million acre-feet per year). And it may not even be enough. The lower end of those cuts will just about solve the deficit spending, but it won’t be adequate to build up the savings or to settle outstanding debts. If climate change continues to shrink the river even 4 million acre-feet may not be enough. 

So, we—the Colorado River users—must make huge cuts. And that means the biggest users of water (the biggest spenders, to go with our earlier analogy) are going to have to play a major part. The biggest user is agriculture and the thirstiest crop is hay, alfalfa in particular. For High Country News’s Landline I wrote about alfalfa and the need to grow less. This Data Dump is intended to provide some more data to support and supplement that piece. Some of it you’ve seen in previous Data Dumps, but some of it will be new. 

But first, a note: I’m not making value judgments here, nor am I “vilifying” a particular crop, as one reader suggested. I’m not saying that alfalfa is somehow less valuable or more wasteful than almonds, or golf courses, or even your daily shower. Remember that alfalfa not only feeds beef cattle, but also dairy cattle (I can’t find reliable stats on how much alfalfa goes to beef vs. dairy—if anyone knows, please tell me!). So if you eat cheese or butter or ice cream, all of which are high on my list of yummy foods, you’re probably eating alfalfa. Nor am I saying that we need to fallow alfalfa fields instead of drying up golf courses or anything else (if it were up to me golf courses and turf lawns would be banned long before alfalfa, and canals covered with solar panels before alfalfa fields).

Cuts are going to have to come from across the board and across every sector. It’s just that as the biggest water user in the Colorado River Basin, alfalfa must play a part (it’s just math). And according to federal agricultural data, farmers are growing less alfalfa in the Colorado River Basin than they were five years ago. That is certainly a beginning. 

Now, on to the numbers. For reference: 1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons. Most of the stats come from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Foreign Agriculture Service and Census of Agriculture.

“Natural Flow” is a calculation of how much water would flow in the Colorado River without any withdrawals or reservoir evaporation. In other words, it’s the amount of water available for use. The 1922 Colorado River Compact assumed that there would be at least 15 million acre feet running past Lee’s Ferry. Over the last two decades it’s averaged in the 12 MAF to 13 MAF range—and falling. Source: USBR
For the life of me, I cannot find a more updated version of the breakdown of consumptive uses in the entire Colorado River Basin. The USBR has Consumptive Use and Losses reports for the Upper Basin up to 2020 (see below); and “accounting reports” for the Lower Basin, which break use down by irrigation district, but not sector. So I’m relying on this. (If any readers have more up to date breakdowns, send them my way!). Total consumptive use has dropped to between 13 million and 14 million af and agriculture continues to use the lion’s share of the water. Source: USBR.

2 million to 4 million acre-feet Amount of additional cuts—on top of those already made this year and last year under the emergency shortage declarations—Colorado River water users need to make to bring consumption in line with water supplies. That’s enough to fill 1.8 million to 2.2 million Olympic-size swimming pools; or 222,222 Kim Kardashians-worth (see data point below).

244,635 acre-feet Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is forecast to use this year, nearly all of which goes to Las Vegas and neighboring cities. The state’s water users withdraw about 450,000 acre feet from Lake Mead, but then return about 230,000 acre-feet in the form of treated wastewater via the Las Vegas Wash.

39 Number of golf courses in Las Vegas

459 acre-feet Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association. 

300 Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona.

921 Number of golf courses in California.

3.18 million gallons per acre (9.76 af) Amount of water needed per year to keep grass alive in the Mojave Desert. That’s about twice as much as what alfalfa requires.

13,455 square feet Size of an Olympic-size swimming pool, which holds 1.8 acre feet of water.  

600 square feet Maximum size of a swimming pool in Las Vegas’ new building code, which SNWA says will save 32 million gallons of water over the next decade. 

470 square feet Average size of a Las Vegas residential swimming pool, but some are over 3,000 square feet. 

2.2 million Approximate number of residential swimming pools of all sizes in the seven Colorado River Basin states.

232,000 Gallons of water over the maximum limit Kim Kardashian used at her L.A. property in June (about .7 acre-feet). If she were to continue that rate of excessive use she’d consume about 9 acre-feet per year—or twice as much as alfalfa.

145 million gallons Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. 

Okay, those numbers are there to give some perspective, and to show that, yes, golf and lawns and soccer and football fields and coal power plants and Los Angeles celebrities use a bunch of water. And now let’s look at alfalfa:

This is the breakdown of water use for the Upper Basin (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico) only. Agriculture guzzles the lion’s share of the water, as you can see. You may also notice that the Upper Basin uses less water than California, alone. That may seem unfair, but it’s how the Colorado River Compact was set up: The Upper Basin states aren’t guaranteed a set amount, they just get what’s left over after delivering 7.5 MAF per year to the Lower Basin. Lately that has not been very much. USBR.
The Imperial Irrigation District is by far the biggest single water user on the Colorado River, consuming about 850 billion gallons per year, nearly all of which is used for agriculture in the Imperial Valley. As much as one-third of that water was used to irrigate alfalfa, based on 2017 USDA agriculture census figures. *This figure for the Southern Nevada Water System does not account for Las Vegas Wash return flows, which are subtracted from this amount (to arrive at a net total of about 245,000 af). USBR.

2 to 6 acre-feet
Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa, depending on location and climate. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley alfalfa consumes about 2 acre-feet per year, while in California’s Imperial Valley it can be a bit more than 6 acre-feet annually. Most other places fall somewhere in between.

4.1 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Utah, Arizona and Colorado in 2017.

2.7 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in those three states planted with alfalfa and other hay crops.

3 million Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022.

18,000 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in in San Juan County, New Mexico, in 2022, all of which relies on water from Colorado River tributaries for irrigation.

76,070 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in the San Luis Valley in Colorado in 2022. Fields here are irrigated with water from the Rio Grande, which dried out in Albuquerque this year.

85,795 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa in Imperial County, California, this year, consuming as much as 510,000 acre feet of Colorado River water—more than twice as much as the entire Las Vegas metro area’s yearly consumptive use. Imperial County has come to be known as the hottest county in the nation.

139 Number of Imperial County farms on which more than 500 acres of alfalfa was grown in 2017.

88,252 acres Amount of land planted with alfalfa this year in Maricopa County, Arizona, home of Phoenix.

90,000 acres Amount of photovoltaic solar panels needed to equal the generating capacity of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, according to a 2021 MIT/Stanford study.

1.73 million metric tons Amount of hay shipped overseas via San Francisco and Los Angeles ports in 2021. This amounts to 50 million gallons of water, according to rough calculations based on 240 lbs of water/ton of hay.

$880 million Value of last year’s hay exports from Colorado River Basin states.

$450 million Value of that hay that went to China. 

$73 million Value shipped to Saudi Arabia.

75% Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.

446,000 acre-feet Estimated amount of water that evaporates annually from major Upper Basin reservoirs, including about 359,000 acre-feet from Lake Powell.

#Water #conservation efforts to thwart #drought delusional — The Boulder City Review #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Alfalfa harvest via the Western Farm Press.

Click the link to read the guest column on the Boulder City Review website (Rod Woodbury). Here’s an excerpt:

Over the last two decades, however, the river has generated average flows of only 12.3 million acre-feet annually, a huge shortfall despite serious municipal conservation and reuse efforts. Southern Nevada has led the way in those laudable efforts. Despite adding 750,000 to our population since 2000, we’ve somehow managed to cut consumptive use by 26 percent due to aggressive conservation and recycling programs. Still, it’s not nearly enough. Global warming and the megadrought are projected to continue, which means river flows and lake levels will keep plummeting without drastic policy changes. We’re now only 90 feet above the “dead pool” level at which Hoover Dam will cease generating electricity.

And it’s no longer alarmist to prophesy that it could happen within our lifetime or even the next decade. That’s why the federal government recently issued its first-ever shortage declarations, reducing Nevada, Arizona and Mexico’s collective allocations by over 700,000 acre-feet annually, then tasking the seven river states to create a collaborative plan cutting an additional 2-4 million acre-feet annually next year.

So, here’s where I get brutally honest, which always seems to get me in big trouble. But I’ll say it anyway. Nevada isn’t the problem. If we were feeling generous, Nevadans could permanently donate back our entire annual allocation and it wouldn’t even make a dent. River flows would still be woefully insufficient to supply current uses and Lake Mead would still be rapidly draining. Of course, just because Nevada isn’t the problem doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the solution. Southern Nevadans should continue our conservation and recycling efforts, even if only to set an example and because it’s the right thing to do. But we need to stop pretending that eliminating more Clark County lawns, reducing the size of more (Las) Vegas golf courses and swimming pools, or even recycling all 1 million gallons of Boulder City’s daily wastewater will somehow solve the systemic river and lake problems. It won’t. Nevada amounts to nothing more than a statistical rounding error in the riverwide problem, and absolutely nothing Nevadans do to better conserve or recycle is going to change that…

Domestic water use also isn’t the problem. Nor are golf courses and resorts. If we completely wiped out the residential populations of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico, for instance, drying up millions or acres of turf and water features in the process, the lake would still be dropping.

Let’s be honest. Desert agriculture is the real problem source. It uses approximately 80 percent of the Colorado River’s water to irrigate 15 percent of the nation’s farmland, producing a high percentage of winter fruits and vegetables. In fact, 20 percent of the entire Colorado River system’s output is channeled across the desert to a few wealthy landowners in California’s once-arid but now-productive Imperial Valley. And growers of cattle feed like alfalfa are by far the biggest river water consumers. So, if we really want to solve our Colorado River problem, then desert agriculture either needs to evaporate out of existence like the water it uses or become vastly more efficient. The best way to ensure that happens is to let the market dictate price. Make agriculture, commercial and industrial users pay for every drop they use, sending it to the highest bidders. With the market in control, we’ll be shocked how quickly irrigation ditches get lined with concrete, recycling projects ramp up and the lake start rising again.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. Credit: Brad Udall via Twitter

Concerns about water rise as #ColoradoRiver negotiations continue — The Rocky Mountain Collegian #COriver #aridification

Colorado River Allocations: Credit: The Congressional Research Service

Click the link to read the article on the Rocky Mountain Collegian website (Ivy Secrest):

Dry, hot air settles over a small suburb in Fort Collins. The heat pushes residents indoors to crank the air conditioning, and the constant spurt of sprinklers is the only sound breaking the midday silence. This is a common occurrence of exceptional waste that may need to become a scene that only exists in memory, especially for states like Colorado.

Colorado has been experiencing drought conditions on and off for decades. And combating the issue of water scarcity in the region has been a priority for the states that rely on Colorado’s water resources.

“As a headwater state, we’re a really critical location in terms of the different rivers that originate in Colorado,” said Melinda Laituri, professor emeritus in ecosystem science and sustainability at Colorado State University.

One of these rivers is the Colorado River, the sixth-longest river in the country, which serves nearly 40 million people. It’s a critical resource for the Southwest United States and Mexico.

“The lower basin and the southern half of the upper basin had been in drought for 22 years,” said Steven Fassnacht, a snow hydrologist and professor at CSU. 

Governor Clarence J. Morley signing Colorado River compact and South Platte River compact bills, Delph Carpenter standing center. Unidentified photographer. Date 1925. Print from Denver Post. From the CSU Water Archives

 The Colorado River Compact of 1922 has been a focus, as the rights established in the compact are being renegotiated to protect the river. [ed. this statement is not correct, no renegotiation of the Compact is in the works.]

A lot of this water access is dependent on snowpack. From the flow of the Colorado River to ground water resources, snow is integral to water access, and Colorado is simply not getting the amount it used to. 

“From the mid ’30s to the mid ’70s, the snowpack was actually increasing,” Fassnacht said. “And since then, the trend has been a decrease in the snowpack.” 

This is particularly concerning when resources are used to manufacture snow for skiing or water lawns that aren’t beneficial to local ecosystems. The larger ecological impacts Colorado has been facing, like fires and excess use of resources, have to be considered. 

The aftermath of July 2021 floods in Poudre Canyon, west of Fort Collins. (Credit: Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

“If you burn the hillside, then you really increase the likelihood that you’re going to have rainfall causing erosion,” Fassnacht said. “You’ve got a lot of sediment that ends up in the river. Ash is terrible for the water treatment plants.”

Think of what it would mean to have ash in your drinking water or even just damaging water treatment facilities. This reality means the way we interact with water may have to drastically change in order to protect it. 

“We have the expectation that we can go to the tap and turn it on and water will be there,” Laituri said. 

Even using your sprinklers in the middle of the day or overusing natural resources by running your AC all of the time can have serious impacts on water resources and the ecosystems they serve. 

“It comes down to education too because not everyone is a watershed scientist,” said Eric Williams, president of the Watershed Science Club at Colorado State University.

Williams said lawns and developers should concern the public in regard to water use.

“I think if we want to point the finger at something, it should be all of these lawns that we have,” Fassnacht said. “I’m not saying let’s get rid of every last piece of lawn, but let’s be a lot more strategic.” 

This is not a new idea. Nevada has begun to remove lawns, and the City of Fort Collins has an initiative to encourage xeriscaping, the replacement of lawn with local plants that fare better in drought conditions. Participating in these programs and educating yourself, Williams said, are some of the best ways to get involved. However, the average citizen can’t simply stop watering their lawn and expect the drought to no longer exist. 

“I don’t know if this can be really driven at the individual level,” Laituri said. “Yes, it makes us feel good to do things that we feel are contributing. … Will that be enough? It’s the larger water users that are going to have to really come to the table.”

We cannot continue to live in a world wherein wealthy citizens and major celebrities can abuse their water allocations while others go without access to clean water at all. The issue of water scarcity is an elaborate entanglement of social justice and environmental concern, meaning the resource must first be treated like a necessity before it can be allocated for luxury. 

Native American lands where tribes have water rights or potential water rights to Colorado River water. Graphic via Ten Tribes Partnership via Colorado River Water Users Association website.

“There’s 30 federally recognized (Indigenous) tribes across the lower basin that should have access to water, and many other reservations actually don’t have running water,” Laituri said. “Assuring that they have access to that resource is part of this conversation.”

Indigenous groups were not included in the Colorado River Compact, and as some of the most prominent advocates of water rights, they have a lot to contribute to the conversation.

Indigenous groups are not the only population to be considered as water rights are negotiated. Laituri emphasized new populations coming to Fort Collins should be considered. 

Laituri said if we want to conserve water, we need to consider the state’s capacity when developing. We need to consider if we can house more people and if it’s responsible to continue this growth in population. 

While the concerns around the river are complex and still not fully understood, that doesn’t mean action isn’t being taken. And it doesn’t mean there aren’t any solutions. 

“Please be curious,” Williams said. “No question is (a) dumb question.” 

Reach Ivy Secrest at life@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest

#ColoradoRiver ‘stalemate’ continues — The #Gunnison Country Times #COriver #aridifcation

Click the link to read the article on the Gunnison Country Times website (Alan Wartes). Here’s an excerpt:

On Aug. 16, the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) issued a press release restating the urgency of the situation and laying out actions it will take in coming months to protect water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

“Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency. In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said. “The Interior Department is employing prompt and responsive actions and investments to ensure the entire Colorado River Basin can function and support all who rely on it. We are grateful for the hardworking public servants who have dedicated their lives to this work, and who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of Basin states, Tribes, and communities.”

“They said, ‘Well, we appreciate all of the efforts, and here’s what the August 24-month study shows, and here’s what we’re going to do for the next year, which is basically consistent with the 2007 guidelines with a modification,’” Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District General Counsel John McClow said.

That modification from the already existing agreement, McClow said, was to hold 480,000 acre feet of water back in Lake Powell to protect the critical elevation of 3,525 feet, but to treat it as if it went to Lake Mead for the purpose of water accounting.

“So, nothing new,” McClow said. “But they said they were still looking to the states to come up with an answer. Basically, I think it was unrealistic to expect the states to deliver a plan to cut the river use by 2 to 4 million acre feet in 60 days. It just wasn’t feasible.”

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1449828004230664195

The problem remains that aridification in the West has meant significantly less available water in the system over the past 20 years. That is compounded by what some have called a “structural imbalance” in how the water is used between the upper and lower basins. In 2021, for instance, the Lower Basin states consumed over 10 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, while the Upper Basin states combined consumed 3.5 million acre-feet.

Hedging our #water bets — @BigPivots

Las Vegas Lake Mead intake schematic, courtesy SNWA.

Click the link to read the article on the Big Pivots website (Allen Best):

Las Vegas in 2007 bet on declining reservoir levels in the Colorado River. The bet is now paying off. Municipal water providers in Colorado have started tightening the spigot for landscaping. That move is also wise — but overdue?

Lake Mead’s receding waters have exposed sunken boats, dead bodies and more. But the wisdom of a bet placed in 2005 by Las Vegas has also been revealed.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority draws 90% of its water for a population of 2.3 million from Lake Mead. It had two intake pipes, one higher and one lower in the reservoir.  Reservoir levels have dropped precipitously since 2002 when the Colorado River delivered just 3.8 million acre-feet of flows. The 1922 compact among Colorado and the seven other basin states assumes more than 20 million in annual flows.

Las Vegas bored a third tunnel, this one coming up from the bottom of the reservoir. The far-sightedness of that and other investments totaling $1.3 billion was revealed in April when reservoir levels dipped below what was needed for the highest intake pipe. Depending upon the Colorado River, Las Vegas had wisely hedged its bet.

The front of the Steamboat Springs municipal building has been xeriscaped to consume less water. Top photo, Lake Mead floats boats below the now-infamous bathtub ring in December 2021. Photos/+Allen Best

Drought combined with the aridification produced by warming temperatures have upset the cart in the Colorado River Basin. Apples are rolling everywhere. The easy, visual way of telling that story is of the widening bathtub rings in the giant reservoirs of the Colorado River. Mead and Powell are respectively 73% and 74% empty.

But the most important story will be in how demand gets cut in Colorado and the six other basin states. The onus is on California, Arizona, and Nevada —particularly California, which for years into the drought to slurp too generously given the emerging climate realities.

Colorado and other upper basin states have lived within their compact-apportioned means. But here, too, changes are underway, because the water just is not there. Farms and ranches, which still consume upward 85% of water in Colorado, will have to be part of the story. So will the still- growing towns and cities.

Changes can be seen most prominently in those places on the edge, including Denver’s fast-growing suburbs of Aurora and Castle Rock. They’re redefining acceptable landscapes in the semi-arid West. Sprawling lawns resembling those of the rain-soaked eastern states are on their way out.

In Aurora, Colorado’s third largest city at nearly 400,000 residents, the city council last week approved regulations sharply limiting turf grasses on golf courses and new homes. Residential lots will be limited to 45% or 500 square feet of the yard, whichever is less, for grass. Within that limit are other limits. No more Kentucky blue-grass. Other varieties use less water

Elected officials in Castle Rock, a city of 80,000 people that expects to fully fill out its britches at 142,000 people, in early September review similar regulations. “Coloradoscape” is what Castle Rock calls its recommended landscapes. For homes, 500 square feet is tiny, smaller than some bedrooms. For new yards, it will be the max. Mark Marlow, director of Castle Rock Water, says city leaders began meeting with stakeholders, including homebuilders, in November.

Marina at Lake Mead. Photo credit: Allen Best/Big Pivots

Facing ‘dead pool’ risk, #California braces for painful #water cuts from #ColoradoRiver — The Los Angeles Times #COriver #aridification #LakeMead #LakePowell

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck. https://twitter.com/bradudall/status/1449828004230664195

Click the link to read the article on The Los Angeles Times website (Ian James). Click through for the photo gallery, here’s an excerpt:

Managers of districts that rely on the Colorado River have been talking about how much water they may forgo. So far, they haven’t publicly revealed how much they may commit to shore up the declining levels of Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.But state and local water officials say there is widespread agreement on the need to reduce water use next year to address the shortfall. Without major reductions, the latest federal projections show growing risks of Lake Mead and Lake Powell approaching “dead pool” levels, where water would no longer pass downstream through the dams. Though the states haven’t agreed on how to meet federal officials’ goal of drastically reducing the annual water take by 2 million to 4 million acre-feet, the looming risks of near-empty reservoirs are prompting more talks among those who lead water agencies…

Though [Tanya] Trujillo and [Camille] Touton have stressed their interest in collaborating on solutions, they have also laid out plans that could bring additional federal leverage to bear. Their plan to reexamine and possibly redefine what constitutes “beneficial use” of water in the three Lower Basin states — California, Arizona and Nevada — could open an avenue to a critical look at how water is used in farming areas and cities. How the government might wield that authority, or tighten requirements on water use, hasn’t been spelled out. The prospect of some type of federal intervention, though, has become one more factor pushing the states to deliver plans to take less from the river…

Because most water rights fall under state law, developing a new definition of “beneficial” would be complicated and could lead to lawsuits, Larson said. What might qualify as “waste” would also be hard to pin down, he said, because “one person’s waste is another person’s job.”

[…]

Arizona and Nevada are calling for a look at “wasteful” water use as a way of prodding large California agencies like the Imperial Irrigation District to agree to substantial cutbacks, [Rhett] Larson said. It’s an indirect way, he said, for the two states to send a message that “California, your agriculture needs to be more efficient.”

The #ColoradoRiver’s alfalfa problem: Growing less hay is the only way to keep the river’s #water system from collapsing — @HighCountryNews #COriver #aridification

A hayfield near Grand Junction, irrigated with water from the Colorado River. Under demand management pilot programs, the state could pay irrigators to fallow fields in an effort to leave more water in the river. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Jonathan Thompson):

The West has an alfalfa problem.

It’s time for hay farmers to come to the Colorado River water-conservation table  

In June, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton told the Colorado River Basin states that they needed to reduce water consumption by 2-to-4 million acre-feet — or as much as 30% of the seven states’ total use — to save the system from collapsing. It was an enormous ask, unprecedented in scope, and probably the first time a Reclamation official’s words ever went viral.

A few weeks later, I stood on a dusty trail in Page, Arizona, looking out at Glen Canyon Dam and wondering whether such huge cuts were even possible, without, say, shutting off every irrigation canal into California. And how could the states possibly manage such a huge reduction while also fulfilling their legal obligation to deliver an equally large amount of additional water to the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin?

Part of the answer lay right in front of me: The trail I was hiking followed the edge of the local golf course, an emerald green carpet on the parched red earth. I wondered how much water you could save by cutting off every golf course in the West. Then I started ticking off other water-saving measures

– Tear up the turf lawns;

– Shut down water-guzzling coal power plants;

– Drain private swimming pools, and ban new ones;

– Shut off those Las Vegas fountains*;

– Halt new housing growth;

– Make water recycling the norm;

– Plug the leaks in water-distribution systems;

– Ban water-guzzling data centers in arid areas;

– Structure water rates in a way that discourages waste;

And put water-flow restrictors on LA-area celebrities’ homes to keep them from wasting water.

Surely that would do it. Especially the last item, given that Kim Kardashian was just busted for using 232,000 gallons more than she was supposed to — and doing so in just one month. (Sylvester Stallone was equally guilty.) But when I sat down to tally up the savings all this added up to, I still came up short. Way short.

459 acre-feet
Average annual water used to irrigate a golf course in the Southwest, according to the U.S. Golf Association. (1 acre-foot = 325,851 gallons)

300
Number of golf courses in Arizona, according to Golf Arizona

145 million gallons
Daily consumptive water use of power plants in Colorado River Basin states, which amounts to about 162,000 acre-feet per year. 

Now, 2 million acre-feet is a huge amount of water: enough to fill more than 1 million Olympic-size swimming pools. To get to Touton’s upper goal, you’d need to drain 2.2 million monster-sized pools. Hell, you could shut off every water tap in Las Vegas, and you’d still come up 2-million-swimming-pools’-worth short — or about 1 trillion gallons. In fact, you could halt all municipal water consumption in the Colorado River Basin — dry out Phoenix and Tucson lawns, deprive Los Angeles and Denver of showers and toilet flushing — and it still wouldn’t be quite enough.

“There’s not 2 million acre-feet of municipal use within the Lower Basin (Nevada, California and Arizona) and probably just above that if you look basin-wide,” said Colby Pellegrino, a deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in an executive roundtable in August. “To think this problem can just be solved by cities just is wrong,” she continued. “Agriculture has to step up to the table.” 

But I come from a long line of western Colorado farmers, and my instinctive reaction to this kind of talk is: Them’s fighting words! We Upper Basin folks learn early on about “first in time, first in right,” and that if you don’t put all of your allotted water on your fields, it’ll run downstream to overflow Las Vegas’ lavish fountains, the swimming pools of Phoenix and Hollywood celebrities’ private forests. The notion of “buying and drying” farms so the cities can keep growing is anathema. 

2.6 million acre-feet
Amount of Colorado River water California’s Imperial Irrigation District is expected to consume this year, most of which goes to agriculture. 

244,635 acre-feet
Amount of Colorado River water Nevada is expected to consume this year. That’s less than half the amount of water that evaporates off of Lake Mead each year. 

75%
Portion of Utah’s Colorado River use consumed by agriculture in 2018.

But once I calmed down, I realized that Pelligrino has a point. See, if you want to cut water consumption, you have to tackle the biggest water users. And the biggest user of Colorado River water, by far, is not lawns, not Vegas golf courses (mostly irrigated by recycled wastewater), not the Bellagio fountain, not even Kardashian or Stallone. It’s agriculture, which historically has accounted for up to 80% of all consumptive water use in the Colorado River Basin. Not only do crops need more water than houses, but in most cases, farmers have senior rights to the bulk of the water. And of all the crops grown in the region, alfalfa and hay fields collectively are the thirstiest. 

That’s not just because alfalfa uses a lot of water, though it does — about 1.5 million gallons per acre per year, rivaled only for thirstiness by almonds and pistachios. It’s also because so much of the West’s agricultural land is devoted to growing alfalfa. Colorado, Utah and Arizona farmers irrigated about 4.1 million acres of crops in 2017, and nearly half of those acres were in alfalfa. The Colorado River Basin’s largest single water consumer is the Imperial Irrigation District in Southern California, which draws some 2.6 million acre-feet from the river each year, nearly all of which goes to crops. About one-third of the district’s irrigated acreage is devoted to alfalfa, which annually consumes at least 400,000-acre feet of Colorado River water — more than Nevada’s entire allotment. 

3 to 6 acre-feet
Amount of water needed annually to irrigate an acre of alfalfa. The amount is greater in hotter, drier climates. 

3 million
Acres of irrigated agricultural land in Western states (including the Colorado River Basin) planted with alfalfa grown for forage (hay), grazing or seed in 2022. 

$880 million
Value of hay shipped overseas last year from Colorado River Basin states, most of which went to China, Japan and Saudi Arabia.

If the Rocky Mountains’ winter snowpack is like a huge reservoir that feeds the Colorado River system, then the alfalfa fields stretching from western Colorado to Southern California comprise a sort of anti-reservoir, sucking up a good portion of the water in order to feed beef and dairy cattle in the U.S., China, even Saudi Arabia. If you were to stop filling up the alfalfa anti-reservoir, or fallow all of the alfalfa fields in the Colorado River Basin, you’d come up with Touton’s desired cuts and then some fairly quickly. It’s simple math. 

Which is not to say doing so would be pretty, painless, politically palatable or even possible. Buying and drying up small farms en masse would threaten rural economies and cultures. Many farmers grow alfalfa or other hay as a side crop — it’s reliable, relatively easy to care for, provides multiple harvests during the long growing season and gains value during drought. If farmers were forced to get rid of their hay, their operations might no longer be viable, and the cost of beef and dairy products would certainly go up. Gone would be the experience of rolling down the windows on a summer’s eve and inhaling the poignant aroma of a freshly cut field. Gone the bucolic sight of the long sunset shadows cast by the bales — all replaced by patches of dusty, noxious-weed-breeding ground or yet more residential sprawl.

Most of us can probably agree that farms should not be dried to allow cities to grow heedlessly, or to allow urban folks to water big lawns or enable Kim Kardashian to do whatever the heck she does with all that water. In the past, Phoenix’s sprawl has gobbled up citrus groves and cotton fields, and Colorado’s Front Range cities have bought and fallowed distant farms to accommodate houses and lawns. That, too, must stop. The goal here is not to transfer the water from farms to cities, but from farms and cities back to the river itself — or, rather, to the rivers, plural. The Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California is in crisis as well, and the Great Salt Lake is rapidly shrinking. Alfalfa fields are a primary culprit in both cases.

So, banning alfalfa is not the answer. But piping Mississippi River water over the Rockies or building billion-dollar, energy-intensive desalination plants to enable farmers to continue dumping water on hundreds of thousands of acres of cattle fodder is simply insane. It’s time for agriculture, and especially Big Alfalfa, to step up and give up a portion of its water either by becoming more efficient, switching to less water-intensive crops or fallowing more fields. The growers will be compensated: Congress just authorized $4 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for that very purpose.

Industrial-scale farmers are currently growing and irrigating some 85,000 acres of alfalfa in California’s Imperial Valley. Cover all of that land with solar panels instead, and you’d save desert land from industrialization, generate enough power to replace Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectricity output several times over — and maybe even stave off the Colorado River’s collapse. 

Additional #water cuts could be coming to Yuma, #AZ farmers, threatening supply of leafy greens — Fresh Plaza #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

A field of produce destined for grocery stores is irrigated near Yuma, Ariz., a few days before Christmas 2015. Photo/Allen Best – See more at: http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/09/drying-out-of-the-american-southwest/#sthash.7xXVYcLv.dpuf

Click the link to read the article on the Arizona’s Family website (Briana Whitney). Here’s an excerpt:

The water cuts made by the Bureau of Reclamation to the Colorado River that will affect Pinal County farmers will not affect Yuma farmers. Still, the bureau said there needs to be millions more cuts to the water, and Yuma farmers may take the brunt of it. The big picture problem: Yuma provides 90% of the nation’s leafy greens like lettuce and spinach during the winter months, and now that could be at risk. Anybody who’s driven from the desert of the Valley to the San Diego beaches passes through the stretch of agricultural land along Interstate 8: Yuma, Arizona. “It is a climate that isn’t really replicated anywhere else in the world in terms of how we can grow and how long we can grow and what we can grow,” said Chelsea McGuire, Director of Government Relations with the Arizona Farm Bureau…

This month the Bureau of Reclamation announced Colorado River water cuts to farms in Arizona amid the drought. That didn’t affect Yuma farms, but something else could. “That’s not kind of where the bureau stopped. They said earlier before they announced the Tier 2A that we’re going to need an additional 2-4 million acre feet to stay in the river to avoid a crash, a catastrophic situation,” McGuire said. McGuire said the Yuma farmers came up with a plan for the Bureau of Reclamation — their farmers are willing to take a one-acre foot of water less per acre. That would total about 925,000-acre-feet in water cuts, a significant chunk but well below that 2-4 million number set by the bureau.

“They’ve basically come to the determination that that’s as much as they can take and still stay in business and keep producing,” McGuire said.

So, all these numbers, what does that mean for you at the grocery store? “The most basic consequence is that we’re going to see significant decreases in availability and significant increases in price,” McGuire said. “We can buy romaine lettuce any time of year in the stores, it’s grown in different places, but we can access it. That may not be the case anymore.”

Feds: #ColoradoRiver’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir able only to deliver two more emergency #water releases — @WaterEdCO #GreenRiver #COriver #aridification

View below Flaming Gorge Dam from the Green River, eastern Utah. Photo credit: USGS

Click the link to read the article on the Water Education Colorado website (Jerd Smith):

Utah’s Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which Colorado River officials have used twice during the past two years to add water to the rapidly deteriorating river system, likely only has enough water left for two more emergency releases, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Last summer, Reclamation ordered the release of 125,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge to help keep Lake Powell from falling too low to produce power. Then, earlier this summer, Reclamation announced that it would release another 500,000 acre-feet of water from Flaming Gorge and hold back 480,000 acre-feet in Powell instead of releasing it to Lake Mead, as it would normally do.

Another 30,000 acre-feet was released from Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir last summer, which along with Flaming Gorge, New Mexico’s Navajo, and Powell itself, was supposed to act as a critical savings account for the river system.

The Colorado River Basin, which is divided into two regions, includes seven states: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming make up the Upper Basin, while Arizona, California and Nevada comprise the Lower Basin. Lake Powell serves as the largest water bank for the Upper Basin, while Lake Mead holds water for the Lower Basin states.

Colorado River Basin. Credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

But as drought and climate change continue to sap the Colorado River, even the water in the Upper Basin’s high elevation storage ponds, namely Flaming Gorge, Blue Mesa and Navajo, isn’t enough to protect the larger system, and those kinds of releases can’t go on indefinitely, said Jim Prairie, a hydrologic engineer with Reclamation.

“We could release from Flaming Gorge maybe two more times,” Prairie said at a conference convened by the Colorado Water Congress last week.

And Blue Mesa and Navajo, now at less than 50% of capacity themselves, are considered too low to provide much, if any, additional relief.

It is analyses like these that prompted Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton in June to order the seven basin states to find ways to come up with 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of water next year, to inject into the reservoirs to keep them full enough to generate hydropower and supply water.

That means determining which water users and states are going to cut back use.

Tensions are rising as the federal government and the states continue to fail in their efforts to develop a concrete plan that will cut water use enough to come up with that 2 million to 4 million acre-feet.

“If we failed at anything in the [drought contingency planning done in 2019] it is that our vision was insufficiently dark,” said Wayne Pullan, director of Reclamation’s Upper Colorado Region.

As the freefall on the river continues, veteran federal hydrologists and engineers at Reclamation are scrambling to come up with new ways to forecast what is going to happen, using, among other tools, a stress test that is based on recent observed inflows, rather than models.

Hydrologists are also using data that excludes measurements from extremely wet years back in the 1980s, and focuses instead on the most recent dry periods.

Reclamation estimates that Powell will receive just 6.2 million acre-feet of water from the mountain snows in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico in 2022, using its new forecasting models. That is far below the 9.6 million acre-foot average, a figure based on a 30-year average that includes extremely wet periods.

Right now, Powell stands at 3,533 feet, just 8 feet above the top of a buffer pool that must be maintained to keep the reservoir’s power turbines operating. Lake Mead is similarly low, with an elevation of 1,043.42.

Reclamation expects the reservoirs’ levels to continue dropping next year as well. “This could be where our hydrologies are going to stay,” Prairie said.

But it isn’t only the one-year outlook that is so troubling, Prairie said. It is the wildly varying temperature scenarios, low soil moisture levels, and shrinking snowpacks that are making it difficult to determine the best methods for keeping the giant river system, and Powell and Mead, from crashing.

Ironically, 2022 is shaping up to be slightly wetter than 2021, when inflow was just 3.5 million acre-feet, well below the 6.2 million acre-feet expected for this year.

Urging water users to move quickly to find ways to deliver and keep more water in the system, Prairie said, “Even if we have a good year next year, it is not going to save us.”

Jerd Smith is editor of Fresh Water News. She can be reached at 720-398-6474, via email at jerd@wateredco.org or @jerd_smith.

What must happen to save the #ColoradoRiver, now that the feds aren’t stepping in — AZCentral.com #COriver #aridification

Click the link to read the column on the AZCentral.com website (Joanna Allhands). Here’s an excerpt:

Opinion: If the feds won’t force action, how can the rest of us save a rapidly deteriorating Lake Mead and Lake Powell? These 5 things might help.

How are we supposed to save Lake Mead and Lake Powell now? Eight weeks of negotiations didn’t get us anywhere near the 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of additional water conservation that must happen in 2023 to keep the nation’s two largest reservoirs on life support. The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees operation of the lakes, declined to offer any additional deadlines for new plans, after the seven states that receive Colorado River water were unable to agree on anything. It also backed away from the threat it made in June of dictating cuts if states couldn’t save enough water. For now, all actions are voluntary. That’s a mistake.

But if these are the cards we’re dealt, what needs to happen now?

1.   No more kicking the can

2.   This requires sacrifice. Say it

3.   Everyone must do their part

4.   Agree to a basic framework

5.   Pressure Reclamation to do its job

I won’t pretend that any of the above will magically lead to a deal. In fact, many folks in the water world think progress is dead until Reclamation makes another credible threat of unilateral action.

But the bureau is doing the opposite.

Every action it outlined last week was either something Reclamation is already doing – such as potentially re-engineering the dams to flow water at lower lake levels – or something that could take months to work out with states voluntarily – like asking the Lower Basin to account for evaporation and system losses, nearly 1.2 million acre-feet of water that we currently pretend doesn’t exist.

Arizona Water Leaders Vow To Work On A System-Wide Agreement To Protect The #ColoradoRiver — The #Arizona Department of #Water Resources #COriver #aridification

Dolores River September 2020. Photo credit: The Water Desk

Click the link to read the post on the Arizona Department of Natural Resources website:

Shortly after the Bureau of Reclamation announced that conditions at Lake Mead had deteriorated to a “Tier 2a” shortage condition, ADWR Director Tom Buschatzke and Central Arizona Project General Manager Ted Cooke released a statement outlining Arizona’s efforts to help stabilize the troubled Colorado River system.

ADWR and CAP “came to the table prepared to take significant additional reductions beyond those required under the 2007 Guidelines and the Drought Contingency Plan with the expectation that others would need to do likewise, as no one state can do it alone,” the two water leaders wrote on August 16.

Their declaration came in the wake of a stunning statement in June by Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton, who said the Colorado River States would need to come up with a plan to leave at least an additional two million acre-feet of water in the system, on top of all other conservation measures already undertaken, by mid-August.

In testimony before a Senate panel on June 14, the Commissioner said that if the Basin States failed to come to agreement within the two-month timeframe, the federal government would “protect the system.”

In their August 16 statement, Buschatzke and Cooke said that over the subsequent two months they had put together an “aggressive proposal” to reach that 2-4 million acre-foot threshold:

“Arizona and Nevada put forward an aggressive proposal that would achieve two million acre-feet of reductions among the Lower Basin and Mexico in 2023 and beyond. That proposal was rejected.”

Director Buschatzke and General Manager Cooke released their statement in the wake of the failure of the seven Colorado River Basin states to provide the Department of the Interior with a united plan to help stabilize Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

Noting that Arizona already has left 800,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead in the current year alone, Buschatzke and Cooke concluded that “it is unacceptable for Arizona to continue to carry a disproportionate burden of reductions for the benefit of others who have not contributed.”

At the same time, they reaffirmed Arizona’s commitment “to work toward a comprehensive plan that assures protection of the system through equitable contributions from all water users.”

Director Buschatzke expressed his appreciation for the Commissioner’s commitment to taking action to defend the vital river system:

“By her comments today, the Commissioner has rendered it clear that the powerful impact of a decades-long drought and a changing climate requires us now to do much, much more, and to do it quickly,” he said.

Arizona and others in the Colorado River Basin have conserved substantial volumes of water since 2014. Taken together, those efforts have resulted in an additional 70 feet of elevation at Lake Mead.

On August 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released its August 24-Month Study of anticipated conditions on the river system, which resulted in the first-ever declaration of a “Level 2a Shortage Condition.”

The Bureau projected an elevation of 1,047.61 feet at Lake Mead at the start of the 2023 Water Year. That falls within the Drought Contingency Plan elevation band of 1,045 and 1,050 feet, which stipulates required shortage reductions and water savings contributions for the Lower Basin States and the Republic of Mexico.

For Arizona, a Tier 2a shortage condition means that the State will have to leave a total of 592,000 acre-feet of its 2.8 million acre-foot annual allocation in Lake Mead. That represents an increase of 80,000 acre-feet over the amount that Arizona has left in Lake Mead in 2022 under a Tier 1 condition. 

The 2-4 million acre-foot cuts sought by Commissioner Touton come in addition to the Tier 2a cutbacks, which are the result of long-standing shortage agreements among the Colorado River States – agreements that in the current emergency have proved insufficient to the task of stabilizing the river system.

Bennet: ‘Survival of the West’ in peril as drought drains #ColoradoRiver — The #Montrose Daily Press #COriver #aridification

Colorado River “Beginnings”. Photo: Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Click the link to read the article on the Montrose Daily Press website (Katharhynn Heidelberg). Here’s an excerpt:

Among the compact’s provisions, the Upper Basin is required to release 75 million acre-feet on a 10-year rolling average, equating to about 7.5 million acre-feet a year.

But years of parched conditions have made that tough and the dispute between the Upper and Lower Basins over who needs to do more to conserve the water has only grown…

“It is a reality that the Lower Basin is using more water than they’re entitled to. That is a reality. We are using less water than we are entitled to (in the Upper Basin),” Bennet said.

“At the end of this, we need a solution that works for the entire Colorado River Basin. I believe that’s a solution that should be negotiated among the states … and then backed up by the federal government.”

Business as usual for the #ColoradoRiver — Writers on the Range #COriver #aridification

Lake Powell, upstream from Glen Canyon Dam. At the time of this photo in May, 2021, Lake Powell was 34% full. (Ted Wood/Water Desk)

Click the link to read the article on the Writers on the Range website (David Marston):

It seemed inevitable that the dwindling Colorado River would be divvied up by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. On June 14, BuRec gave the seven states in the Colorado River compact just 60 days to find a way to cut their total water usage by up to 4 million acre-feet. No plans emerged.

But surprisingly, BuRec’s August 16 press release imposed no new cuts on states, instead affirming cuts mandated under 2007 and 2019 agreements. Nevada and Mexico took minor losses and Arizona emerged as the first big loser.

BuRec said Arizona must cut 592,000 acre-feet “because of the concession it made back in 1968 to California to get the Central Arizona Project online,” says University of Wyoming law professor Jason Robison. That concession meant the 1.4 million acre-feet capacity of the Central Arizona Project has junior water rights. In a shortage — like now — the Central Arizona Project, except for tribal water rights, could be cut to zero, a blow to cities and agriculture.

Here’s a question the Upper Basin states seem inclined to ask: If the 1922 Colorado River Compact parceling out the river’s water is the law, shouldn’t California face major cuts? After all, California’s huge allotment of 4.4 million acre-feet lately equals the entire consumption of the four Upper Basin states, and its allotment is also junior to almost 1 million acre-feet of tribal water.

Graphic credit: Chas Chamberlin/Water Education Colorado

Thanks to a 1931 seven-party agreement, California established a pecking order of priority for each of its water users. Massive districts such as Palo Verde and the Imperial Valley have priority over the Metropolitan Water District, which brings drinking water to 19 million people in Los Angeles and Southern California. The state has a structure, but no plan for serious savings.

For the Upper Basin states, says University of Wyoming Law professor Jason Robison, “It’s more nuanced. But there’s significant federal authority to run those (BuRec) Upper Basin reservoirs,” though none are very large.

Where might other water cuts be found? Colorado’s 1876 constitution ranked municipal water over agriculture, making it tough to dry up cities like Colorado Springs or Aurora, even though their water rights are junior. But residents might see incentives for tearing out lawns, along with programs for water reuse and much higher water rates.

In rural Colorado, there isn’t much water available to conserve. The largest irrigation district in the Upper Basin, the 500,000 acre-feet Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Association, already took a150,000 acre-feet cut this year because of a light snowpack.

“The runoff just isn’t there,” says General Manager Steve Pope.

Pope, as well as many others in agriculture, views a desert city like Phoenix — which grew on the false promises of reliable water — as an existential threat to farming communities.

“Are we going to water a field that produces some sort of a crop, or do we water a golf course or a median?” asks Pope. “What’s the benefit of a lawn?”

What the federal government can’t touch for now is any Upper Basin irrigation project created before the signing of the Colorado River Compact in 1922. In Colorado, a spreadsheet compiled by the state’s Division of Water Resources tells what projects, by date, risk losing water. Some Western slope irrigators are vulnerable because the water rights they’re using were bought by municipalities only recently, intending them for future growth.

Many Colorado irrigators on private ditches are lucky to have so-called “perfected” rights dating from the late 1800s. To snag water from these irrigators, it’s likely to be all carrot and no stick. But rather than taking payments for not irrigating, says Pope, “we would be more concerned with system efficiency and improvements.”

The Inflation Reduction Act provides $4 billion to Colorado River water users for just this kind of conservation. Meanwhile, Colorado is the only Upper Basin state that seriously tested paying irrigators to fallow their land or reduce irrigation by half. But ceasing to irrigate farms involves risks. After a couple of dry years hay fields can bounce back, landowners report, but anything more than that leaves bare dirt and dust in the air.

For now, BuRec seems to be following its plans and hoping for the best, which means emergency cuts might be drastic. As John Weisheit of Utah-based Living Rivers sees it, BuRec made a mistake when it told the seven Basin states of the Colorado River to find 2 to 4 million acre-feet to do without.

“The cuts,” he says, “should go even deeper, up to 6 million acre-feet. The need is to that point.”

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.

7 states and federal government lack direction on cutbacks from the #ColoradoRiver — National Public Radio #COriver #aridification

Lake Granby and the Front Range Mountains. The snowpack is Colorado’s largest reservoir and total water can only be estimated. Photo credit: The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the National Public Radio website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

…a recent deadline for a plan to conserve an unprecedented amount of water came and went without many specifics from either the states or the federal government on how to achieve the cutbacks…With the deadline now passed, and lingering uncertainty about where those cutbacks will come, some of the region’s leaders are calling for the federal government to take charge. Even though the federal government has yet to deliver on its threat to intervene, it could still happen, [Andy] Mueller said. The call for cuts was clear and came with specifics – 2 to 4 million acre-feet in cuts across the watershed. But the threat of what happens if the states can’t get there remains unclear.

“If you don’t know what that threat is, it’s really hard to be motivated to take action,” Mueller said.

Aversion to federal intervention runs deep along the Colorado River. Some state leaders say the federal government should simply run the dams, and not wade into policy-making. Others doubt the forcefulness of federal authorities to mandate cutbacks, most of which are entirely untested. As the river’s scarcity crisis has deepened in recent years, others in the basin are beginning to crave federal leadership.

“There was a deadline that came. It passed. Nothing happened,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves the Las Vegas metro area. “I think it would be much more effective if the federal government actually, in writing, articulates a plan.”

When it became clear the states were not going to reach an agreement ahead of the deadline, he pleaded with federal officials to take the reins and make hard decisions about where some of the cuts need to come from. This tension between the states and the federal government only works as a motivator when state leaders believe a federal crackdown might really happen, he said.

“The states have never accomplished anything meaningful without a credible federal threat,” Entsminger said.

Vague and voluntary proposals may do little to help #ColoradoRiver — @AspenJournalism #COriver #aridification

John McClow, left, moderates a panel on the Colorado River at the Colorado Water Congress summer conference in Steamboat Springs Thursday. From left: Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board and commissioner of the Upper Colorado River Commission; Gene Shawcroft, Colorado River Commission of Utah; Tom Buschatzke, director, Arizona Department of Water Resources. CREDIT: HEATHER SACKETT/ASPEN JOURNALISM

No strong action from feds and no agreement among states

Water managers in recent weeks have put forth plans for conservation aimed at addressing the water-scarcity crisis on the Colorado River. But the proposals, which are vague and voluntary and lack goals with numbers, will probably do little to get additional water into the nation’s two largest reservoirs with the urgency officials say is needed.

In June, federal officials said the seven Colorado River basin states had to conserve an additional 2 million to 4 million acre-feet and threatened to take unilateral action if the states didn’t come up with a plan within 60 days.

But the deadline came and went without a basinwide deal or drastic action by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, except to implement the next round of cuts already agreed to by the states in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan. As of Friday, there was still no plan from the lower basin states — California, Nevada and Arizona — on which upper basin water managers say the bulk of the responsibility to conserve rests.

Golfers take shots on the green lawns of the City Park Golf Course in central Denver on Sept. 28 2020. Denver Water has signed an MOU to the Bureau of Reclamation committing to reducing water use.CREDIT: LINDSAY FENDT / ASPEN JOURNALISM

Cities say they will reduce

On Wednesday, a group of seven municipal water providers — Aurora Water, Denver Water, Pueblo Water, Southeastern Colorado Water Conservancy District, Colorado Springs Utilities, Southern Nevada Water Authority and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — sent a letter and memorandum of understanding to the Bureau of Reclamation pledging to be part of the solution by reducing their water consumption. They committed to expand water-efficiency programs and reduce nonfunctional turf grass by 30%.

The move was praised by environmental conservation group Western Resource Advocates as a good first step.

But the MOU does not include a specific amount of water savings from the municipalities. And although some urban water providers in the basin have been using less water in recent years even as their populations grow, it’s unclear if the new commitments will result in them diverting less from the Colorado River.

“They weren’t able to put numbers, they weren’t able to put dates, we don’t know how much they can actually save, but I’m glad they are saying we want to be part of the solution,” said John Berggren, a water policy analyst with WRA.

Berggren said any success of the measures will depend on the scale.

“If all these providers really scaled up their programs … with millions of dollars and dozens of staff, in a year or two, we could see fairly decent savings,” he said.

Even if the municipalities do conserve water, the amount of water they command is relatively small. Agriculture uses about 80% of the Colorado River’s allocation; in the state of Colorado, it’s roughly 86%.

‘We built a house of cards:’ Deal or not, #ColoradoRiver states stare down major cuts — The #Nevada Independent #COriver #aridification

John McClow, Rebecca Mitchell, Gene Shawcroft, Tom Buschatzke at the Colorado Water Congress 2022 Summer Conference.

Click the link to read the article on the Nevada Independent website (Daniel Rothberg). Here’s an excerpt:

The Colorado River remains in an unfolding and worsening crisis. Demand far exceeds supply. Long-term drought, worsened by climate change, has meant less water refilling the river’s large reservoirs as water users have continued to overtap them. Lake Mead, outside of Las Vegas, is the grim evidence, where, at 27 percent full, old boats have washed ashore in what can feel like an apocalyptic scene. The math is unavoidable: Without cuts, the reservoir will keep dropping…

Yes, some cuts went into effect for Nevada, Arizona and Mexico. Yet it’s important to note that these cuts were already planned for, accounted for and agreed to in several deals struck over the past 15 years. The cuts are not negligible; Arizona will have its apportionment reduced by 21 percent, and Nevada’s apportionment will be trimmed by 8 percent. Still, the cuts are not nearly enough to stop the rapid decline of reservoirs like Lake Mead and Lake Powell...

The reality is that, even with the original deadline passing, there is reason for the states to cut more — and act this year. Without action, Lake Mead will continue to drop, risking a major (and in some places, the only) water supply for users downstream in Arizona, California and Mexico. Only Nevada, with its “third straw,” can take water from Lake Mead if the reservoir drops below what is known as “dead pool,” a threshold at which water cannot pass through Hoover Dam. If the large-scale cuts are deferred any longer, it means more uncertainty for all water users.

No firm new deadline for #ColoradoRiver basin states’ #conservation plans — KUNC #COriver #aridification

This page features images and footage shot with a GoPro camera during a pilot-only Lighthawk flight above Lake Mead and Hoover Dam, along the Colorado River near Las Vegas, Nevada July 29, 2020. Photo credit: The Water Desk

Click the link to read the article on the KUNC website (Luke Runyon). Here’s an excerpt:

The seven states that rely on the river blew past an August 16 deadline without a plan to conserve 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water. They were given that task by officials with the Bureau of Reclamation and from within the Interior Department. The agency’s models show that amount is what is necessary to keep the river’s biggest reservoirs — lakes Mead and Powell — from reaching critical levels.

“Our common deadline is as soon as possible,” said Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for water and science, on Thursday. “While we’re working on those shorter term efforts, we’re also at the same time trying to continue working on those longer term strategies.”

Federal officials announced they would be implementing a series of water cutbacks for Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico in 2023. Those cuts were previously agreed to under the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and the 2007 Interim Guidelines.

In a statement, the Bureau of Reclamation said it would be considering “other operational actions to establish flexibility” in the river’s Upper Basin and Lower Basin operations at facilities the agency owns and operates, but didn’t elaborate further on what those actions might be.

The feds declined to seriously cut #ColoradoRiver #water use. Here’s what that means — @HighCountryNews

Graphic credit: Colorado Basin River Forecast Center

Click the link to read the article on the High Country News website (Nick Bowlin):

After Southwestern states failed to cut a deal, the Interior Department took it easy on them.

With drought pummeling the Southwest and the country’s most important reservoirs scraping bottom, the Department of the Interior announced that the seven states that rely on it must reduce the water they pull from the Colorado River next year.

The announced cuts are unprecedented. They are also a small fraction of what the federal government says is needed to keep the Colorado River system from collapsing.

Here’s what you need to know.

It was a messy process to get here. The Colorado River, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California in Mexico, provides water for 40 million residents of the Southwest; major cities, including Phoenix and Las Vegas; more than two dozen tribal nations; and some of the most productive, important agricultural fields in the world. The demand far exceeds the supply of a river that has been dwindling for years due to climate change-induced drought.

Farm fields in Arizona, where irrigation pumps are partly powered by Glen Canyon Dam. (Source: Water Education Foundation)

In June, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Interior Department agency that manages water infrastructure in the Western U.S., told the seven states involved — the “Upper Basin” states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and the “Lower Basin” states of Arizona, California and Nevada — to cut back substantially on the water they collectively use. Otherwise, the agency warned, it would impose drastic cuts anyway.

However, the states failed to cut a deal. And on Tuesday, Interior Department officials declined to follow through on their threat, leaving a big question mark about how the federal government intends to address an increasingly dire situation.

Yes, there will be some cuts, but those cuts are meager. In a press release, the Interior Department described its response on Tuesday as an “urgent action” to protect the system. But the restrictions it announced were far less severe than what it had threatened in June.

Signing ceremony for the Colorado River upper and lower basin Drought Contingency Plans. Back Row Left to Right: James Eklund (CO), John D’Antonio (NM), Pat Tyrell (WY), Eric Melis (UT), Tom Buschatzke (AZ), Peter Nelson (CA), John Entsminger (NV), Front Row: Brenda Burman (US), and from DOI – Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty. Photo credit: Colorado River Water Users Association

Also, these cutbacks were already on the books. All seven states had already agreed to them in a 2019 drought plan, which laid out cuts for the Lower Basin if Lake Mead sank low enough to trigger a “Tier 2” shortage. That happened for the first time ever on Tuesday.

The reductions fall hardest on Arizona, which will lose 592,000 acre-feet in 2023 — 21% of its annual allotment (this figure includes an existing cutback from last year). Nevada will lose about 25,000 acre-feet, and Mexico will lose 104,000 acre-feet, or 7% of its annual portion. But California, another Lower Basin state, will not lose any of its water — for now. It will begin losing water at the next shortage level.

The Las Vegas Wash(Opens another site in new window) is the primary channel through which the Las Vegas Valley’s excess water returns to Lake Mead. Contributing approximately 2 percent of the water in Lake Mead, the water flowing through the Wash consists of urban runoff, shallow groundwater, storm water and releases from the valley’s four water reclamation facilities. Photo credit: Southern Nevada Water Authority

By contrast, in June the federal government requested a total of 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of cutbacks to ensure safe water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. But with the federal government unwilling to act on its threat, it’s not clear how — or whether — the basin will be able to cut that water use.

Brad Udall: Here’s the latest version of my 4-Panel plot thru Water Year (Oct-Sep) of 2021 of the Colorado River big reservoirs, natural flows, precipitation, and temperature. Data (PRISM) goes back or 1906 (or 1935 for reservoirs.) This updates previous work with @GreatLakesPeck.

Things are bad and will get worse. There’s less water in the basin than ever. The past 20 years have been the Southwest’s driest in 1,200 years, according to an academic paper published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change. This “megadrought,” as scientists call it, has reduced rainfall, diminished snowpack and dried out riverbeds across the region.

Tuesday’s announcement coincided with a regularly released 24-month study on water-level projections for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. Both reservoirs are languishing at just over a quarter full — an all-time low.

In a statement, the Interior Department described the conditions as “critically low.” The agency’s own study suggests things will get worse — and do so quickly. By January, Lake Powell is projected to sit just 32 feet above the “minimum power pool,” the level at which Glen Canyon Dam can no longer operate its giant turbines to produce electricity. This spring, the Bureau of Reclamation held back water in Lake Powell that was meant for Lake Mead, in order to prevent this calamity. This will likely happen again, as well as releases from reservoirs upstream of Lake Powell. But such short-term solutions cannot make up for the plain fact of not enough water to go around.